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Ivo van Hove’s Shakespeare Cycles: Immersive Spectacle and Intermedial Adaptation

Two of the Flemish stage director Ivo van Hove’s most noteworthy theatrical works are durational Dutch-language productions of Shakespearean cycles. As translations and heavily cut condensed re-envisionings of Shakespeare’s plays in a modern and mediatized aesthetic, van Hove’s Dutch Shakespearean cycles certainly fit within the field of adaptation studies: they are striking examples of the “repetition with variation” that lead audiences to experience “adaptation as adaptation involv[ing…] an interpretive doubling, a conceptual flipping back and forth between the work we know and the work we are experiencing” (Hutcheon 4, 139). Many theorists of adaptation focus on film; for example, Thomas Leitch notes that “adaptation theory […] is one of the oldest areas in film studies” (1). Leitch highlights how swiftly Shakespeare’s plays were adapted for the new medium of film, and the proliferation of courses teaching Shakespeare on film. But, as Kamilla Elliott argues, adaptation exists and has “multiple definitions across fields, disciplines, media, cultures, and eras” (182); it is less concerned with the essentializing idea of “truthfully” transforming a work than with the process of transformation. Within such conceptualizations of adaptation studies, van Hove’s Shakespeare cycles are worthy of more in-depth study.

Van Hove’s Shakespeare adaptations both came to the United States at the time of momentous presidential elections. In November 2012, shortly after the reelection of President Barack Obama, van Hove and Toneelgroep Amsterdam brought Roman Tragedies (first premiered 17 June 2007) to New York at BAM. Roman Tragedies is an intermission-free work that runs five hours and thirty minutes and condenses Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Antony and Cleopatra into an immersive meditation on the effect of digital media on democracy. Four years later, on the eve of the election of President Donald Trump, van Hove brought Kings of War (first premiered 5 June 2015; presented at BAM 3–6 November 2016) to New York; the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead called it “The First Great Theatrical Work of the Trump Era.” This work condenses Henry V, all three Henry VI plays, and Richard III into a four-and-a-half hour-long engagement with authoritarianism and war. Although both are intermedial translations and adaptations of Shakespearean cycles, and they were staged in Brooklyn in the shadow of American presidential elections and ongoing foreign wars, the two productions are tonally and conceptually unique works. Roman Tragedies, staged amidst American optimism in the Obama era, questions the reality of citizens’ participation in government, particularly as leaders become celebrities through the 24-hour news cycle. Kings of War, in contrast, on the eve of the Trump administration presciently highlights the ways in which authoritarian rulers deceive populist societies for personal gain. Both works, however, since they are lengthy conflations of several Shakespearean dramas, demand a great deal from both performers and audiences.

These two durational Shakespearean productions fall within a longstanding tradition of staging extended cycles of Shakespeare’s connected plays—from Franz von Dingelstedt’s German-language cycle celebrating the 300th anniversary of the playwright’s birth, to Frank Benson’s in 1901 in Stratford (the first English-language cycle), John Barton and Peter Hall’s The Wars of the Roses, Nick Bagnall’s battlefield productions of the Henry VI plays, and the BBC’s An Age of Kings and The Hollow Crown series, which can also be read as film versions of connected stagings. Such cycles highlight the grand vision of directors, the stamina of performers, the spectacle of these historical war plays, and the devotion of audience members to becoming immersed in extended productions of Shakespeare’s works. Roman Tragedies and Kings of War exist firmly within these traditions of Shakespeare cycles, but van Hove’s cycles are productions of and for our own globalized society that posts selfies on Instagram: his is a Shakespeare of seemingly endless distant wars in Afghanistan, a Shakespeare of the unbridled hope of Obama and the Twitter-fueled rage of Trump. By staging his cycles squarely within the mediatized aesthetics of the late twentieth and early twenty-first century theatrical avant-garde, Ivo van Hove continues the storied process of, as Jan Kott wrote roughly a half-century before van Hove created these productions, making Shakespeare “our contemporary.” Van Hove takes history plays, depicting the events of ancient Rome and late medieval England, written at the end of the sixteenth century, and uses modern technology to make them speak to our current, and ever-changing moment.

In so doing, van Hove is combining two significant approaches that theatre-makers have utilized to make Shakespeare speak to their particular moments. One approach is, seemingly paradoxically, to stage Shakespeare’s history cycles using durational performances retelling a layered past to make statements about contemporary society or politics. This is an approach highlighted by Kott, who notes that “by discovering in Shakespeare’s plays problems that are relevant to our own time, modern audiences often, unexpectedly, find themselves near to the Elizabethans […] this is particularly true of the Histories” (6). Another way directors have made Shakespeare our contemporary is by utilizing the most modern technology available: filming his works, or, in recent years, bringing screens onstage to create live intermedial performances.1 As both David Willinger, in Ivo van Hove Onstage, and Susan Bennett and Sonia Massai, in their collection Ivo van Hove: From Shakespeare to David Bowie, point out, van Hove seems to be in the midst of a massively popular moment, although in fact he has been working prolifically for the past four decades (Bennett and Massai, 1). To some degree, these scholars argue, van Hove’s work feels strikingly appropriate for audiences in our present moment because he threads the needle between technological innovation and fastidiously text-based directing, between the auteur’s thorough structuring of the theatrical experience and the collaborative director’s complete trust in his ensemble of performers (whether they are international stars or members of Toneelgroep Amsterdam) and his partner and designer Jan Versweyveld. In this article, I contribute to these notable analyses of van Hove’s work with an eye towards adaptation, showing how Roman Tragedies and Kings of War are revolutionary in the ways that the director crafts durational, intermedial history cycles that speak particularly potently to their current audiences.

I. Shakespearean Cycles: Virtuosity, Spectacle, and Shakespeare’s Shifting “Contemporaries”

Shakespeare’s English history plays have been periodically performed as cycles since Franz von Dingelstedt inaugurated the practice in an eight-day festival at Weimar in 1864. As I argue elsewhere, “such cycles […] are not simply celebrations of virtuosic acting, design and directorial vision, and stamina, which assert a company’s mastery of Shakespeare in performance [but] also utilize Shakespeare’s connected English history plays to present visions of how […] a period in Medieval English history can reflect upon contemporary society” (“See the Revolution of the Times,” 182). The goals of both highlighting virtuosic performance and speaking to the present moment can be seen as intimately connected in various historical cycles, whether staged in nineteenth-century Germany, twentieth- or twenty-first century England, or on screen. For example, Dingelstedt created his inaugural cycle during a period in which the primacy of the stage director as the author of an artistic experience was developing. Dingelstedt’s ambitious project, staged in the theatre that Johann Wilhelm von Goethe had led a half-century earlier, established its director as an artist who could carry on Goethe’s artistic mission. With hundreds of actors and historical spectacle, particularly for the many battle scenes, as well as frequent cuts and even a few newly-written speeches, Dingelstedt’s adaptation of Shakespeare provided theatrical spectacle that fit decidedly within a society marked by Bismarckian militaristic nationalism and developing theatrical auteurism.

Frank Benson’s cycle, the first in the English language, which took place from 1901 to 1906, similarly used the history plays to create a Shakespearean spectacle for his own time. Staging the English histories in Stratford-upon-Avon, Benson engaged with multiple English pasts—both the medieval English history depicted in the plays and the glorified period of Shakespearean England—to craft modernist productions looking forward towards a new and uncertain century (Orford). Barton and Hall’s 1963 The Wars of the Roses, which highlighted the ways in which leaders can turn towards authoritarianism and oppress their people, was a cycle for a period marked by increasing popular unrest and existential global crises such as the building of the Berlin Wall. The BBC’s An Age of Kings (1960) and The Hollow Crown (2012 – 2016) take almost diametrically opposite approaches to adapting Shakespeare’s English histories into a cycle for television. Both feature star actors of stage and screen: Sean Connery, Judi Dench, Julian Glover, Barry Jackson and others appear in the earlier cycle; Tom Hiddleston, Benedict Cumberbatch, Sophie Okonedo, Simon Russell Beale, Jeremy Irons, and Judi Dench (again!) appear in the latter. But An Age of Kings is a black-and-white production made on a low budget, with actors in numerous roles, as if in a regional theatre’s repertory stage production. It is a precursor to the BBC’s television Shakespeare presented from 1978 – 1985, and a Shakespeare cycle of and for a twentieth-century UK that idealized “merrie olde England” as exemplified by Shakespeare onstage. The Hollow Crown, with its historical costumes, spectacular battle scenes, and nontraditional casting seems at home in an era culturally dominated by the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Both certainly “are Shakespeare,” to cite a twentieth-century litmus test for Shakespeare on film (Rothwell) that has continued to hold sway in the twenty-first century, but the “our” in “our contemporary” refers to radically different viewers in the 2010s than it did a half-century earlier.

Beyond the ways that such cycles highlight the performances of star actors and make historical performance contemporary, one other key similarity is that they subject audiences to spectatorial experiences that are almost immersive on account of their durational nature. In his book Great Lengths, in which he examines several works of “marathon theater,” Jonathan Kalb argues that durational productions are necessarily adaptive and immersive, striking “blows against [the] ephemerality” (192) that is central to Aristotelian theatre, while forcing audiences into “the illusion of living a lifetime within the span of a single day” (48). By replacing Shakespeare’s “two hours’ traffic of our stage”2 with something significantly longer, directors like van Hove require that the audience members themselves, to some degree, enter the world of the play through their extended spectatorship.

II. Intermedial Shakespeare, Our Contemporary

Ivo van Hove’s Shakespearean cycles are not only adaptations because they are durational conflations of several individual plays translated into a foreign language, but because they adapt plays written for live theatrical performance: not into film, but into intermedial stage productions utilizing filmic techniques developed over the last century.3 Studies of Shakespeare on film have focused on the ways both modern and postmodern filmmakers utilize high-tech film imagery to reclaim less popular stage works for our times. As Benjamin Hilb argues, even early or lower-tech Shakespearean film adaptations such as Orson Welles’s Falstaff: Chimes at Midnight (1965) are necessarily intermedial, “asserting [their] own cinematic predominance among several media, effectively reworking memory, history, writing and theater in its own moving image [and] stag[ing] a sustained inter-medial contest between sound and image” (86). Welles’s film adaptations of Shakespeare accomplish this intermedial adaptation despite being notably low-budget and technically simplistic through effects such as voice overs and close-up shots; in more spectacularly cinematic Shakespearean adaptations, such as those of Julie Taymor, the process is even more marked. Jim Welsh and John Tibbets, Cecile Marti, and Elsie Walker discuss the ways in which Julie Taymor’s Titus (2000) utilizes eclectic styles and references, combining naturalistic “method” acting with elaborately choreographed filmic imagery and technology, and film references borrowed, especially from Fellini, in order to take viewers through a rabbit hole into a Rome that is simultaneously classically ancient, “a strikingly visual reworking of Renaissance ‘Baroque fantasies of the imagination’” (Marti, 122) and mid-twentieth-century fascist—all in order to create an adaptation that is startlingly present at the dawn of the twenty-first century (see Figure 1). Examining Taymor’s more recent The Tempest (2010) in conversation with Peter Greenaway’s Prospero’s Books (1991), Sébastien Lefait argues that filmed versions of Shakespeare’s works often adapt and replicate Shakespearean metatheatrical reflexivity through metacinema, maintaining a visual control that “depends on a specific scopic culture, and that culture has changed. In the twenty-first century, visual control, whether it is artistic or not, is mediated rather than direct” (141). Filmed versions of Shakespearean plays are necessarily intermedial adaptations, transposing plays into an artistic form that the playwright could hardly have imagined in his own time, but they demonstrate the particular potential of mediatized live theatre to speak to twenty-first century audiences.

Ivo van Hove’s Shakespeare Cycles: Immersive Spectacle and Intermedial Adaptation
Dan Venning, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 1: Anthony Hopkins, Colm Feore, Laura Fraser, and Angus Macfayden in Julie Taymor’s Titus (1999)

In contrast with film adaptations, which bring Shakespearean adaptations to mass audiences in cinemas or—often in the age of streaming, viewers’ homes—mediatized theatre still requires the “actor-spectator relationship of perceptual, direct, ‘live’ communion” (19) that Jerzy Grotowski hails in Towards a Poor Theatre.4 Yet mediatized theatre does more than simply put screens, audio loops, or live feed cameras onstage. It creates a hybrid form where, as Victoria Lowe argues, “questions about authorship [are raised], because of the way in which different authorial voices and/or inscriptions can be detected or are erased” (41). Playwrights, directors, actors, onstage cinematographers, and even audience members who might be live-tweeting or Instagramming a performance as it happens compete to construct the frame through which the production acquires meaning. As Thomas Cartelli demonstrates, intermedial Shakespearean productions have become increasingly commonplace over the past several decades (2019, 47–52), while our daily lives have become ever more mediatized by the computer screens on which we work or the filters through which we view images on our smartphones.5 (In 2020, Abrar Al-Heeti reported for the media website CNET that millennial Americans can expect to spend roughly a decade of their lives looking at their smartphones, and this doesn’t even take into account the amount of time we spend in Zoom meetings in the wake of the COVID pandemic.) Just as durational theatre creates an immersive effect for audiences who join performers for an extended period of time, the interactive aspects of intermedial theatre also bring audience members into the world of the play. Such effects—and their parallels in the daily lives of audience members—are clearly visible in van Hove’s Roman and English Shakespearean adaptations.

III. Roman Tragedies and Kings of War: History, Media, and the Contemporary Moment

Roman Tragedies highlights the ways in which technology can give a populace the illusion of control, or of connection with celebrity politicians, but can just as quickly be abused to provoke violence or enable authoritarianism. The play conflates Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, which was written around 1608 and set around 491 BCE, during the early days of the Roman Republic, with Julius Caesar (written 1599 and set 44 – 42 BCE) and Antony and Cleopatra (written around 1606 and set 40 – 30 BCE), which dramatize the downfall of the Republic and the beginning of the authoritarian Roman Empire. The theatrical program notes that the Coriolanus section takes only ninety minutes, while Julius Caesar takes up the next 107 minutes, and Antony and Cleopatra the concluding 143 minutes, meaning that each individual play is significantly cut. However, they are presented without any intervals, meaning that that the full event is a nearly six-hour long marathon and that audience members must choose to miss something if they leave to use the restroom. An onstage clock counts down to the death of the next major character, so the audience is aware of what will happen. We are watching history unfold in what appears—due to Versweyveld’s ultramodern design—to be the political present (in the Antony and Cleopatra section, when Antony demands his armor and Cleopatra dresses him, she helps him into a power suit, straightening his tie as she says “Is not this buckled well?” [4.4.11]). And the audience is given the illusion of control: after the first scene, audience members are invited to leave their seats and come onstage. An onstage bar provides refreshments, audience members are invited to photograph, live-tweet, and Instagram the show with the hashtag #RomanTragedies—with those tweets sometimes appearing on one of many onstage screens. Audience members may find themselves lounging in some of the onstage seats next to actors who have not yet begun performing. The onstage screens dominate the set, providing English supertitles for the Dutch language spoken by the actors, close-ups of the performance, or clips from real US and UK news loops or political speeches (see Figure 2).

Ivo van Hove’s Shakespeare Cycles: Immersive Spectacle and Intermedial Adaptation
Dan Venning, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 2: Roman Tragedies at BAM, 16 November 2012, showing onstage audience, live-feed of actors (also visible onstage in bottom of image), and supertitles. Photo by the author.

At the center of the production is Antony’s funeral oration over the corpse of Caesar, performed by the compelling Hans Kesting for live-feed cameras surrounding him and broadcast to screens around the space, a ready-made press conference for cable news networks (see Figure 3). No battle scenes happen onstage: occasionally the many screens depict scenes of war, sometimes from the aerial view of drones, that are happening elsewhere. In the final section of Roman Tragedies,while the audience focuses on Antony’s sordid sex scandal in Egypt with Cleopatra, Octavius is able to seize control (in van Hove’s version, Octavius is a woman, played by Karina Smulders, perhaps meant to nod towards neoliberal globalizing figures like Hillary Clinton or Angela Merkel). Once she does, the illusion of popular participation in the political process is removed as audience members are told to go back to their seats.

Ivo van Hove’s Shakespeare Cycles: Immersive Spectacle and Intermedial Adaptation
Dan Venning, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 3: Antony (Hans Kesting) delivering the live-streamed funeral oration for Julius Caesar (in Roman Tragedies at BAM (2012). Note: the stage is empty other than the performers because this is a press image taken at a rehearsal. Photo: Richard Termine

Critics and scholars have been divided as to van Hove’s message or the precise effects of the mediatized performances in Roman Tragedies. Sarah K. Scott reads van Hove’s goal as “providing the experience of living in an information age of 24/7 news” in order to show the dehumanizing effects of “present-day politics delivered through the media—and mostly through television screens—even, strangely, when one is there in person” (351–52). In an essay for Shakespeare Quarterly on the development of the piece, Christian M. Billing focuses on what was cut from the play-texts, noting that the missing battle and crowd scenes mean that “occasions of history’s losers, or its nonpolitical classes, were deliberately cut or left outside the frame,” and that the self-justifying speeches that filled the production revealed a lack of “actual debate or hands-on popular democracy” (416). Drawing a parallel to “narrative battles” between Hamas and the Israeli Defense Forces over Twitter in 2012, another critic focuses on the immersive aspect of the live-tweeting audience members, showing how “an audience with fractured access to the spectacle of world affairs and an oscillating engagement with its players and events […] play a crucial role in piecing together the narratives that render geopolitical events meaningful, but feel largely powerless in spite of this capacity” (Ball, 163–66). For D. J. Hopkins, the primary effect of van Hove’s use of intermedial theatre was aesthetic, highlighting how the “video captured the performances of individual actors, rendering as cinematic realism what appeared onstage as rather more self-consciously theatrical” (770). But whatever van Hove’s precise purpose in Roman Tragedies, this mediatized cycle demonstrates how plays written over four centuries ago about the political struggles of an empire two millennia ago remain relevant to the era of Bush and Obama, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Like Roman Tragedies, Kings of War condenses and conflates numerous Shakespearean plays: Henry V, all three Henry VI plays, and Richard III are adapted into one work, staged in a massive, ultramodern set featuring numerous screens displaying live-feed shots as well as recorded images. The throne room becomes a boardroom and bunker and, as in Roman Tragedies, the royal regalia is once again a power suit, although a historical crown and stole is used for ceremonial coronation scenes, before being locked in a display case upstage (see Figure 4). But the slightly briefer Kings of War (“only” around five hours long) has an intermission and eschews audience interaction: confined to our seats and without our live-tweets displayed on the onstage screens, we are passive observers of the machinations of autocrats. Some of those kings are ostensibly well-intentioned: the national hero Henry V who prevails against France, or Richmond, who defeats Richard III and becomes Henry VII at the end of the piece (both are played by Ramsey Nasr). Eelco Smits plays Henry VI as an intellectual in horn-rimmed glasses who “means well, but is incapable […] short of stature and vulnerable […] impotent panic can be read in his eyes throughout” (Thielmans, 295–96). But at the center of the piece is that villainous Richard (played by Kesting, who had played Antony in Roman Tragedies), a figure of narcissism, lust, aggrieved entitlement, and violent selfishness so monstrous that he would seem cartoonish except for the fact that in 2016 he could be seen on the real-world global stage in the likes of Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán, Jair Bolsonaro, and other populist would-be authoritarians. But whether ostensibly “heroic,” “ineffectual,” or “villainous,” all these kings are rulers who send masses of people to die in service of their personal ambitions; Joseph V. Melillo calls the work a “compression of the plays in service of a single study of political mendacity” (51).  Indeed, Kings of War opens with a scene from Henry IV, Part 2, when the dying King Henry IV urges his son, Prince Hal, to “busy giddy minds / With foreign quarrels” (4.3.342–3), a piece of Realpolitik advice that the prince takes to heart as soon as he attains the throne.

Ivo van Hove’s Shakespeare Cycles: Immersive Spectacle and Intermedial Adaptation
Dan Venning, Literature Film Quarterly
Figure 4: The live-streamed ceremonial coronation of Henry V (Ramsey Nasr) in his bunker near the beginning of Kings of War at BAM. Photo: Richard Termine

Although the audience is ostensibly not as involved in the action of Kings of War as they were in Roman Tragedies, once again they become stand-ins for the populace that must be won over—or terrified into submission—by these kings. This process is highlighted by the way in which van Hove deploys film throughout the performance. In Kings of War, there are apparently armies of supernumeraries for battle scenes, and even a flock of real live sheep—apparently waiting just offstage in corridors in the wings, into which the fourteen main actors stride, followed by the live feed cameras. Of course, the sheep and supernumeraries were not really there: some sequences were pre-recorded and “seamlessly integrated [into the live feed], to highlight the production of apparent truth in a mediatized society” (Venning, “Kings of War,” 92). Kings of War thus critiques the “observational feedback loop” van Hove utilized throughout Roman Tragedies, where “those on stage can see the screen, which shows what they can see being filmed, and know others can see it too. This complex act of spectatorship creates multiple aspects of simultaneous viewing of the real and the feigned” (Ledger, 205–206). In Kings of War, the intercutting reveals how, because of complex technology, we can no longer trust what we are being shown via the onstage “news screens.” Through such effects, van Hove prophetically explains why an ideologically polarized populace will distrust a press construed by leaders as “the enemy of the people,” and dismiss experts and even clear visual evidence, choosing instead to put their faith in the “alternative facts” of leaders who embrace conspiracy theories, question the efficacy of vaccines, deny climate change, ban books, or try to dismiss a violent insurrection as a peaceful protest.6

One final element of both Roman Tragedies and Kings of War deploys intermedial engagement throughout both productions: the Dutch translation and onscreen supertitles. Many of van Hove’s productions in the United States (on Broadway and frequently at the New York Theatre Workshop) have been English-language, featuring star American and European actors. But Roman Tragedies and Kings of War, although staged in the United States, were presented by van Hove’s Dutch company, Toneelgroep Amsterdam, with Shakespeare translated into Dutch (by Tom Kleijn for Roman Tragedies and Rob Klinkenberg for Kings of War). On tour at BAM and elsewhere, this demands technology from the get-go in the form of English supertitles. These supertitles reveal van Hove and his translators’ adaptations of the text: as Mark Lawson points out, in Kings of War Henry V’s “gentlemen in England now abed” (4.3.64) is retranslated as “nobles who aren’t here,” and “Richard III [speaks] some of Macbeth’s most famous lines” (33). But even more than revealing adaptations of the text, the supertitles connect with the way that many people now watch digital media. Whether viewing streaming shows, YouTube, Facebook videos, or TikToks, many audience members today watch captioned media, even in their own language. Van Hove’s supertitles mark these productions as our contemporaries, part and parcel of our digital era.

Coda: Ivo van Hove and Shakespeare Cycles for the Evolving Present Moment

In this past decade, Ivo van Hove blended durational cycles of history plays with mediatized aesthetics to craft productions that immerse audiences in historical political struggles that become vividly present. Simultaneously adaptive in form and structure—and translations into Dutch—yet also grounded in Shakespeare’s words and historical traditions of Shakespearean performance, these productions reveal the continued potential for Shakespeare to remain our contemporary and speak to the current moment. However, Roman Tragedies and Kings of War also reveal the gaps in van Hove’s aesthetics, and the ways in which Shakespearean adaptations need to grow and change to represent new issues for our emerging decade. Marvin Carlson laments van Hove’s primacy in New York as an indicator of “the provinciality of the New York theatre” and the need for new continental voices who, “equally important in Europe and elsewhere, have yet to be produced in New York at all” (232). Part of the issue is the aesthetic similarities that permeate van Hove’s works, which are always designed by his partner Versweyveld: the contemporary business costumes and nondescript sets.7 Such Shakespearean cycles are wonderfully primed to deal with the cable news of distant international wars, the scheming of ambitious politicians, or the aspirations of vicious would-be autocrats, but the aesthetic can also be limiting and monotonous.

The societal issues that are dominating our new decade demand a new aesthetics. In the wake of the dawning BlackLivesMatter movement, the murder of George Floyd, and the We See You White American Theatre advocacy, we need a genuine reckoning with the ways in which Shakespeare’s plays deal with or avoid issues of inclusion, access, equity, and justice. Of course, such issues are not new to Shakespearean performance today. Throughout his works Shakespeare explores questions of inclusion and marginalization within his own era: the agency and repression of women in patriarchal societies; anti-Semitism is at the core of The Merchant of Venice, and racism drives the plot of Othello (Neill 207–84). As Michael Neill has further demonstrated, Shakespeare’s history plays consistently engage with questions of Irish nationhood and the marginalization or inclusion of the Irish in early modern English society (339–72). More recently, Catherine Silverstone has examined Shakespearean productions and adaptations that turned to such questions around the turn of the twenty-first century, such as Don C. Selwyn’s 2002 film The Maori Merchant of Venice, a post-Apartheid production of Titus Andronicus in Johannesburg in 1995, queer adaptations of The Tempest, and Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 National Theatre production of Henry V at the dawn of extended wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. But the specific iniquities and issues of our current era, particularly intersectional racial justice, trans rights, feminist, ecojustice, and anti-authoritarian movements, require even more new approaches to these classic texts. Toneelgroep Amsterdam (now Internationaal Theater Amsterdam [ITA]) remains an organization with primarily white members. In his Shakespearean cycles, van Hove has not yet effectively engaged with issues of intersectional racial justice8. The global COVID pandemic will certainly continue to affect our society and it will be fascinating to see, as theatre continues to reemerge, how van Hove engages with this recent crisis. And while our increasingly mediatized and globalized society is certainly a hallmark of the beginning of the twenty-first century, as climate change continues to devastate the globe, Shakespearean cycles—onstage, on film, and, as with van Hove, intermedially—will certainly have to engage with what will probably become the defining issue of our century.


1  The term “intermedial” can be understood in a variety of ways. Aneta Mancewicz deploys it to focus on live performance that requires and is “activated through digital technology” (3) but it can also be read as simply indicating adapting across the borders of various forms of performative media. I tend towards the latter approach here, but Mancewicz’s definition remains valuable.

2  All quotations from Shakespeare’s plays in their English original in this article are from The Oxford Shakespeare: The Complete Works, Second Edition.

3  One could legitimately question whether van Hove uses “film” at all, since he most frequently employs live-feed video. Approaching this topic as a scholar and critic of live performance, I tend to use the term “film” for the aspects of van Hove’s productions projected onto screens, but acknowledge the slipperiness of the term.

4  Grotowski celebrates these as the core tenets of theatrical presentation precisely because they are opposed to what he calls a “Rich Theatre,” a form dependent on “artistic kleptomania, drawing from other disciplines, constructing hybrid-spectacles” and relying on “the integration of borrowed mechanisms (movie screens onstage, for example)…” (19). In 1968, Grotowski seems to be railing against van Hove’s aesthetic, nearly a half-century before it was developed. Nonetheless, mediatized theatre still requires the core elements of live theatre on which Grotowski focuses.

5  Cartelli goes on to argue that the increasing dominance of mediatized Shakespeare has provoked some backlash, with audiences gravitating towards productions that rely on embodiment, immersion, and liveness.

6  The penchant for would-be authoritarian rulers to convince populist supporters that the press is their enemy and that facts are lies is certainly not new to the era of Trump, and continues after his term as the forty-fifth president of the United States. For example, as I write in early 2022, Vladimir Putin is using similar rhetoric of “fake news” to convince Russian citizens that his unprovoked war of aggression in Ukraine is in fact a benevolent peacekeeping mission, despite numerous images and testimonies demonstrating the facts of his invasion. See for example Remnick for the history of this in relation to Trump, and Shteir’s article on frequent revivals of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People in the wake of Trump tweeting this phrase.

7  Van Hove’s consistent aesthetic, as well as his use of known star actors in his English-language productions, and reuse of actors in his Dutch-language productions with Toneelgroep Amsterdam, can also be seen as an example of the sorts of theatrical “ghosting,” Marvin Carlson explores in The Haunted Stage. Carlson argues that theatrical performance is a site of both cultural and individual memory, and that audience members’ responses are characterized by intertextual rememberings of other productions of the same play, other works by the same director, other performances in the same space, or other roles played by the same actor. In a passage particularly applicable to van Hove, Carlson highlights that “postmodern drama and theatre has tended to favor the conscious reuse of material haunted by memory, but in an ironic and self-conscious manner quite different from classical usage” (14).

8  Van Hove’s English-language productions have been more diverse, utilizing nontraditional casting to great effect, for example with Sophie Okonedo as Elizabeth Proctor in The Crucible on Broadway (2016), and staging West Side Story (2020) with numerous Black and Latinx performers. However, the inclusive aims of van Hove’s casting in the latter are undercut by the fact that the Bernardo in that production, Amar Ramasar, was involved in a #MeToo scandal at the New York City Ballet for sharing private photographs of women without their consent.

Works Cited

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Ball, James R., III. “Staging the Twitter War: Toneelgroep Amsterdam’s Roman Tragedies.” TDR: The Drama Review 57.4 (Winter 2013; T220): 163–70.

Barton, John and Peter Hall. The Wars of the Roses: Adapted for the Royal Shakespeare Company from William Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Parts 1, 2, 3 and Richard III. London: BBC Books, 1970.

Bennett, Susan and Sonia Massai, eds. Ivo van Hove: From Shakespeare to David Bowie. London: Methuen Drama, 2018.

Billing, Christian M. “The Roman Tragedies (review).” Shakespeare Quarterly 61.3 (Fall 2010): 415–39.

Carlson, Marvin. 10,000 Nights: Highlights from 50 Years of Theatre-Going. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017.

———. The Haunted Stage: The Theatre as Memory Machine. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2001.

Cartelli, Thomas. Reenacting Shakespeare in the Shakespeare Aftermath: The Intermedial Turn and Turn to Embodiment. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019.

Elliott, Kamilla. Theorizing Adaptation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020.

Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre. Ed. Eugenio Barba. New York: Routledge, 2002 [1968].

Hilb, Benjamin. “Intermediality in Orson Welles’s Shakespearean Collage: Competing Narrative Modes and Media in Chimes at Midnight.” Literature/Film Quarterly 44.2 (2016): 86–105.

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