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Mediating Theatre, Theatricalizing Media: Ivo van Hove as Adapter

Despite a career dating back to the 1980s, Ivo van Hove has more recently become one of the most recognizable and divisive directors in theatre today. His productions, defined by their combination of minimalism and mediation, take up canonical works and radically reimagine them. His stages are transformed into cold and spartan spaces where video screens replace naturalist set design, and camera operators regularly move among the performers so that their labor—a performance in its own right—becomes visible rather than concealed. The theatre of van Hove is a theatre of process, rather than product, in that its seams lay bare, promoting a critical distance often found in modern European theatre. While this signature approach has won him critical acclaim and (more recently) commercial success, it has frustrated, even angered, more traditional theatre critics and audiences. As such, the work Ivo van Hove proves to be a generative object lesson for examining various tensions within contemporary theatre-making, including film (or video) and theatre, immediacy/liveness and mediation, even art and commerce.

Studying the work of Ivo van Hove brings together scholars working in literary studies, film and media studies, and theatre and performance studies. It also points to ongoing gaps in these respective fields. Literature and theatre scholars have been particularly attuned to how van Hove modifies the source text and incorporates media into live performance, whereas film and media studies scholars have generally paid no attention to mediation in theatrical contexts. Yet film and media scholars are attentive to how properties systematically move across industries as well as the structure, logic, and practices of the industries themselves. But limited attention has been paid to the creative industries perceived to be unmediated, such as theatre, both by media studies scholars and theatre and performance studies scholars alike. Although scholars of early cinema have noted the interrelationship between film and theatre, most notably in Lea Jacobs and Ben Brewster’s 1998 book Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film, there has not been a substantive interindustrial history of film and theatre since Robert McLaughlin’s 1974 study of Broadway and Hollywood. Erica Moulton has called upon scholars to consider “the convergence of film and theater in the 21st century,” and Peter C. Kunze has noted this convergence as an ongoing process, tracing it back to at least the 1930s, when New York Times drama critic Brooks Atkinson expressed anxiety about theatrical productions that adapted cinematic storytelling approaches in their attempts to get optioned by Hollywood producers.

For many of his detractors, van Hove’s use of media has been dismissed as gimmicky, overwhelming, and distracting. But these same assessments may also reveal its critical, even radical, possibilities. Christophe Collard asserts that van Hove’s approach tests “how technically mediated communication influences our perception of reality” (4). In so doing, Collard suggests, van Hove prompts a critical awareness of the “mediation behind the signification process” (4). Jennifer Parker-Starbuck appears to agree with this statement in her discussion of The Antonioni Project, a 2009 van Hove production adapting and blending Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), La Notte (1961), and L’Eclisse (1962). She observes:

we are, at times, witness to a laboratory experiment, of a deconstruction and reconstruction of crumbling stories, of global technologies, of acting bodies. We watch the camera move into place and what we see on screen is a blend of theatre and film that refuses to fully merge, that through its gaps and cuts and shifts reminds us of the realities of our lives. (86)

In van Hove’s work, mediation and liveness do not so much blend as alternate, underscoring each other in the process.

In recent years, van Hove has moved more and more into staging screenplays as “live” theatrical productions. One might understand this trend as similar to the enduring trend of musicalizing movies for the stage, which dates back at least as far as Hazel Flagg in 1953 (based on Nothing Sacred [William A. Wellman, 1936]) and achieved newfound popularity among Broadway producers (many backed by Hollywood monies) in the 1990s and 2000s with Beauty and the Beast and The Producers. Journalists deemed these shows “movicals,” and Judith Sebesta perceives them as “a postmodern phenomenon operating through the use of nostalgia, intertextuality, dual coding, and layers of meaning” (101). From an economic perspective, these productions are a risk management strategy: as production costs rise, familiar properties assuage the anxieties of investors and audiences alike who want a recognizable story that delivers in exchange for the high cost. Staging Network (Sidney Lumet, 1976) or All About Eve (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1950), for example, benefit from the audience’s recognition of the plot, which Susan Bennett suggests they may review prior to attending van Hove’s stage version (167). To that end, the ticket buyer for a Broadway show and a Hollywood blockbuster are operating within the same media economy and through the same consumer logic.

In addition to social and industrial contexts for staging screen content, van Hove’s productions reveal the formal dimensions of such artistic endeavors. Erica Moulton suggests that the cameras on stage during Network underscore the constant mediation of our everyday lives and may draw in audiences as well. Victoria Lowe argues that such productions can reflexively comment upon how cinematic storytelling operates as well as how audiences make meaning in both media (40). Similar to Moulton, Lowe sees staged film properties as a “response to a hyper-mediated landscape” (42). Lowe adds that this landscape is also one in which theatre and film are cultural equals, not artistic expression and commercial rubbish respectively.

In van Hove’s work, the tension between theatre as an art form and a commercial entertainment becomes increasingly apparent. Much like Julie Taymor, Ivo van Hove developed his reputation as a bold innovator in the avant garde theatre before finding success on Broadway. His productions were often defined by a bare-bones approach, radical reimagining of the source text, and striking use of video technologies. This distinctive aesthetic brought van Hove attention and acclaim in experimental productions in Europe and North America, especially the Netherlands (where he is artistic director of Toneelgroep Amsterdam) and the United States. In 2017, he premiered on Broadway with two well-publicized and well-received productions of Arthur Miller works, The Crucible and A View from the Bridge. He returned to Broadway with an adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay for Network (2018) and in 2020, a production of West Side Story that traded Jerome Robbins’ balletic choreography for a more socially-conscious and realistic aesthetic. Beyond Broadway, van Hove also has adapted and staged Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage (New York Theatre Workshop, New York, 2014), Luchino Visconti’s The Damned (Comédie-Française, Paris, 2016), and Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (Noel Coward Theatre, London, 2019). Adapting film screenplays is not his only theatrical pursuit, but rather combined with his ongoing interest in classical theatre and modern drama (for example, Henrik Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler at the Royal National Theatre, London, 2016) and his more recent foray into musical theatre (David Bowie and Edna Walsh’s Lazarus [New York Theatre Workshop, New York, 2015]). Whether ancient Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, or a staged screenplay, van Hove employs his “muscular, minimalist avant-garde aesthetic” so that the production is simultaneously familiar and novel (Polster 124).

This special issue of Literature/Film Quarterly foregrounds Ivo van Hove as adapter, thinking through his work via adaptation studies to consider both mediating theatre and theatricalizing media. The contributors herein focus on his more recent theatrical projects to continue the ongoing critical examination of his work by focusing on his as-yet-unstudied efforts. Dan Venning opens our issue with a discussion of van Hove’s Roman Strategies and Kings of War, productions that adapted William Shakespeare’s tragedy and history plays respectively through a process of compression and remediation. The first, Roman Tragedies, draws upon Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Anthony & Cleopatra to emphasize immersion and intermediality in its durational performance. With Kings of War, van Hove turned his attention to Shakespeare’s history plays, including Henry V, Henry VI (all three parts), and Richard III, to examine authority and power—and a running time eclipsing four hours. Venning examines the works’ formal innovations in their sociopolitical context, including the latter’s staging in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential election. In so doing, he offers us a revealing discussion of politics and aesthetics in van Hove’s work.

Through his consideration of van Hove’s staging of screenplays by Ingmar Bergman, David Pellegrini explores adaptation as revision and reinterpretation. Much like his later work with productions such as West Side Story, van Hove clearly takes up Bergman’s Cries & Whispers and Scenes from a Marriage less out of some kind of obsequious admiration and faithfulness than a desire to both update and reimagine them for a new context. Bergman’s handling of space, time, even representation is modified by van Hove in his efforts to synthesize his own aesthetic with the famed auteur’s. Pellegrini turns to remediation theory, in particular, to underscore the formal and narrative revisions van Hove carries out as he makes the Bergmanian stories distinctly his own. Herein Pellegrini imagines rewarding inroads for adaptation scholars to theorize medium specificity, representation, and theatrical production.

Steve Benton takes the study of mediation and liveness a step further by analyzing the cinemacasting of van Hove’s West End adaptation of All About Eve, based on the iconic 1950 film starring Bette Davis. Gillian Andersen of The X-Files fame takes up the legendary role of Margo Channing, and Benton’s analysis considers how such events blend moviegoing and theatrical entertainment.Drawing on dramatic theories by Antonin Artaud and Bertolt Brecht, Benton examines the implications of National Theatre Live presentations for both form and spectatorship.

In her discussion of van Hove’s production of Network, based on an adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s screenplay by Lee Hall, Julia Sirmons challenges the alleged creative bankruptcy of adapting films to the stage. Foregrounding intermediality and animation, Sirmon pays particular attention to van Hove’s work with video designer Tal Yarden to consider the remediation that takes play in bringing not only filmic stories, but filmic storytelling, to the stage. Through her analysis, Sirmons underscores the artistic results and spectatorial pleasures of such adaptations.

Finally, Peter C. Kunze’s article examines van Hove’s last New York work prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, a daring reimagining of West Side Story that underscores the show’s social themes over its more fanciful moments. With new choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, scenic designs by Jan Versweyveld, and video designs by Luke Halls, the 2020 revival of West Side Story shows minimal deference to earlier productions in order to update the show for the 21st century. In the process, Kunze argues, it lays bare the tensions within van Hove’s Broadway work: between art and commerce, between realism and artifice, between liveness and mediation. Attention to van Hove as an artist working within a specific industrial context—specifically one prone to minimal risk and high costs—demonstrates that van Hove is not only adapting West Side Story, but his own distinctive approach to theatre-making, for mainstream Broadway audiences.

In sum, we hope the essays here draw adaptation scholars’ attention to Ivo van Hove’s work while also underscoring the excitement and possibilities that lie in considering the stage as a dynamic space for intermediality, intertextuality, and remediation. This pursuit is not new, of course; indeed, important interventions, such as Sarah Bay-Cheng, Jennifer Parker-Starbuck, and David Z. Saltz’s Performance and Media: Taxonomies for a Changing Field, forge paths forward in analyzing this defining opposition. But as we demonstrate and underscore in the following essays, Ivo van Hove’s stagework provides an invigorating reminder of the varying dimensions of adaptation that continue to demand our attention: formal and narrative, but also social, economic, and political. We hope such studies stimulate further inquiry not only into van Hove as an adapter, but the productive, too often underexplored, intersections of media studies and theatre and performance studies via the enduring concerns of adaptation.

Works Cited

Bennett, Susan. “Directing Across Genre: Film, Fiction, Music, Theatre.” In Ivo van Hove: From

Shakespeare to David Bowie, edited by Susan Bennett and Sonia Massai, 165-170. London: Methuen Drama, 2018.

Collard, Christophe. “On the Dynamic Equilibrium of Embodied Adaptations: Contextualizing Ivo Van Hove’s Roman Tragedies.” Theatre Annual, vol. 66, 2013, pp. 1-16.

Jacobs, Lea, and Ben Brewster. Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Kunze, Peter C. "Belles are Singing: Broadway, Hollywood, and the Failed Gone With the Wind Musical.” Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, vol. 38, no. 4, 2018, pp. 787-807.

Lowe, Victoria. Adapting Performance Between Stage and Screen. Chicago: Intellect, 2020.

McLaughlin, Robert. Broadway and Hollywood: A History of Economic Interaction. New York: Arno Press, 1974.

Moulton, Erica. “Curtain Calls and Cameras: Film Technology Center Stage in Network (2018).” Playback, 23 Nov. 2018, https://playback.wisc.edu/2018/11/23/curtain-calls-and-cameras-film-technology-center-stage-in-network-2018/. Accessed 16 September 2021.

Parker-Starbuck, Jennifer. “Cyborg Returns: Always-Already Subject Technologies.” In Performance and Media: Taxonomies for a Changing Field, by Sarah Bay-Cheng, Jennifer Parker-Starbuck, and David Z. Saltz, 65-92. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2015.

Polster, Joshua. “A View from Salem: Ivo van Hove’s The Crucible.” In Ivo van Hove: From Shakespeare to David Bowie, edited by Susan Bennett and Sonia Massai, 122-130. London: Methuen Drama, 2018.

Sebesta, Judith. “From Celluloid to Stage: The ‘Movical,’ The Producers, and the Postmodern.” Theatre Annual, vol. 56, 2003, pp. 97-112.

Willinger, David. “van Hove, Virtuoso.” In Ivo Van Hove Onstage, edited by David Willinger, 1- 235. Routledge, 2018.