Ivo van Hove and Opening Night

By bringing a John Cassavetes film to the stage, one would suspect that director Ivo van Hove wants to start a conversation about the interplay between cinema and theatre. Indeed, the fact that the film Opening Night is set in a theatre appears to confirm this suspicion. And by including a raft of screens and cameras in the production, van Hove appears to be making some strong opening remarks. But in truth, he has never seen the film he is staging and thinks of the cameras as theatrical, rather than cinematic devices.

At 52, van Hove was only 19 years old when Opening Night was released. He might have missed that film but, growing up in Antwerp, he had made a habit of visiting the local arthouse cinemas and devouring Cassavetes’ earlier works, along with those of Michelangelo Antonioni, Ingmar Bergman, Pier Paulo Pasolini and Luchino Visconti.

As a teenager, the emotional and psychological terrain of Cassavetes’ films was alien to van Hove, but the intimacy and rawness of the work were evident and infectious. When he returned to the films in his thirties, he felt their full impact and set about bringing them into the theatre. Adapting films for the stage has been brilliantly lampooned by the likes of Wes Anderson with Rushmore, however, van Hove is not strictly interested in staging films—he is interested in staging screenplays. The difference is more than academic because by removing the desire to mimic or deconstruct the visual and aural language of cinema, van Hove can simply concentrate his efforts on realising the text with the same set of skills and theatrical inventiveness he brings to any play.

Film titles—Scenes from a Marriage, Teorema, Rocco and his Brothers—leap out from van Hove’s directorial résumé. He sees these screenplays as an exciting frontier because staging them for the first time is effectively a premiere. Instead of being the thousandth director to tackle The Cherry Orchard he can be the first to tackle Cries and Whispers on stage. And he looks at Antonioni and Bergman not in terms of the aesthetic markers that characterise their cinema but in terms of their thematic uniqueness—who does death better than Bergman? who examines love in modern society like Antonioni?

And Cassavetes? Open, actor-oriented screenplays dealing with adult relationships in all their sensuality, vicissitude, violence and, most importantly, artifice. In 1997, van Hove presented a staging of Faces in the Netherlands, which, in a brilliant perversion of cabaret seating, had the audience lying shoeless in beds as the actors performed around and almost on top of them. He wanted next to tackle Husbands but Cassavetes’ wife Gena Rowlands politely withheld the rights because of the very personal subject matter. Instead, van Hove came to read Opening Night and found in it a story equally as compelling. The film centres on a famous actress, Myrtle Gordon (played by Rowlands), who is struggling through the rehearsals of a new play, which also stars her ex-husband (played by Cassavetes). Gordon’s internal conflicts burst to the surface when an adoring young fan dies in a car accident (a dramatic catalyst quoted by Pedro Almodovar in All About My Mother). Cassavetes’ screenplay avoids pinning down exactly what is at the heart of Gordon’s psychological turmoil and instead revels in its complexity and unresolvedness. It could simply be viewed as a portrait of an aging actress driven to despair by the death of her younger self (the fan), but van Hove sees it also as a family tragedy. Either way, in its examination of inner lives curtailed by social mores and niceties, it continues Cassavetes’ obsession with the difference between people’s private and public faces—the masks and artifice of adult life.

The first words van Hove wrote in his copy of Opening Night were “Neil Young”. Music always plays a vital role in van Hove’s theatre, whether it is Steve Reich’s minimalism in his latest production in New York, The Little Foxes, or six hours of live percussion in his compendium of Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies. Indeed, van Hove is happy to label his work “music-theatre” just to emphasise how much music is more than wallpaper to him. In this case, Neil Young’s Heart of Gold provides what van Hove refers to as “an extra layer of humanity” with its “good-sentimental” tone.

Alongside that song, Marc Meulemans’ sound score for the stage production is a constant companion that sometimes underscores moments of choreographed movement. These interludes of physical expression are some of the most apparent theatrical extrapolations on the source material. Van Hove is fascinated by the way in which psychological subtexts can be explored or made manifest by physical motion and he emphasises that his actors are always very physically engaged with the text they are speaking. He cites the French opera, theatre and film director Patrice Chéreau as a key influence on the way in which he directs bodies in space. But the physical dynamics at work also reveal the creatively symbiotic relationships between van Hove and his Belgian contemporaries: Anna Teresa de Keersmaeker, Alain Platel and Jan Fabre.

But what of the cameras? By giving the theatre the capacity for a close-up, they enlarge and expand the emotions on stage. Hence, van Hove thinks of them and the video screens as a contemporary extension of some of the oldest theatrical devices we know of—Greek masks. In this sense, one could argue that the video aspects of van Hove’s Opening Night reaffirm Cassavetes’ obsession with the many masks that people wear. Yet, van Hove shies away from such thematic neatness and points instead to practicality and circumstance as the reasons for video’s inclusion. On the one hand, he wanted to reduce and simplify the many locations of the film but, on the other hand, to maintain the sense of the text being set in a theatre he and his designer Jan Versweyveld created a theatre on the stage, complete with paying audience. Thus, the set is a rangy agglomeration of public and private spaces, some of which simply cannot be seen by the main auditorium without the aid of cameras. Of course, even this reductive explanation reveals that the cameras give the audience access to spaces, both physical and psychological, that would otherwise remain hidden or private. In fact, the best analogy for van Hove’s use of video in Opening Night is the fly-on-the-wall documentary crew that lucks out by happening on a crisis. As people attempt to maintain appearances and gloss over problems, the cameras reach behind the delusions and obfuscations.

The constricted, magnifying gaze of the camera with this power to unravel and reveal can be intoxicating, but van Hove maintains that the screens do not diminish the importance of the actors being physically present (the fundamental differentiator of theatre). To ensure this, he frustrates the audience by never giving them everything in one medium or the other. In other words, it is impossible to receive and follow every moment of Opening Night by watching the screens or the stage in isolation. It is only in their combination that the narrative unfolds, that the characters reveal themselves and that we see both sides of the mask.

This article originally appeared in print in RealTime issue #99 October-November 2010 pg. 15, and is reproduced with permission. http://realtimearts.net/article/99/10008