“Britain’s theaters could teach its politicians a lesson about life after Brexit”

Ivo van Hove, one of Europe’s most in-demand directors, says British politicians should learn from the cinemas how to behave after Brexit, claiming they are setting a “very good example”.

The Amsterdam-based Belgian director, who regularly works with British theaters and next weekend takes his production off A little life to the Edinburgh International Festival, he said Brexit was “historically a mistake”.

Nevertheless, theaters and cultural institutions refused to be stopped by any additional technical details, he said. Instead, cooperation with other European countries continued and even intensified.

“Theatres and other cultural institutions set a good example by continuing to work with European artists when there was Brexit. They didn’t stop it, Van Hove, 63, told the newspaper Observer.

“Nobody stopped a collaboration. On the contrary, they intensified a lot of cooperation. The world of theater and art is a very good example for the politicians [of how] to keep it open.”

Van Hove has led the way. So far this year, he has directed The human voice starring Ruth Wilson at the Harold Pinter Theatre, his production brought the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam Age of Rage to the Barbican, and next weekend will see the UK premiere of his stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling novel, A little life.

While he said “it’s clear that Brexit was wrong” and jokingly suggested it should be reversed, he believed Europe was acting in “a very drastic way … it’s a real shame”.

Hanya Yanagihara said she would be honored if Van Hove brought her novel A Little Life to the stage.

Hanya Yanagihara said she would be honored if Van Hove brought her novel A Little Life to the stage. Photo: Jenny Westerhoff/PA

“Brexit is historically a mistake. But that’s my opinion,” he said, adding the caveat that he was a Belgian living in Amsterdam and working in London. But he believes many artists in the capital feel the same way.

Meanwhile, in Amsterdam, his collaboration with British theaters continued through Brexit. While “it’s a bit harder to get to London” than it was, the problems were not insurmountable.

British theater producers such as Sonia Friedman, the “super producer” behind the worldwide hit Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and To kill a songbird, which transferred from Broadway to the West End in March, has continued to “behave the same way it did before”, he said. “Nothing changed for me there.”

As he prepares to render his production of A little lifewhich will be performed in Dutch with English subtitles, he admitted that he was initially reluctant to read the lengthy 2015 novel which follows the lives of university friends Jude, Malcolm, Willem and JB, and addresses topics such as trauma, abuse and suicide.

Although he had seen the famous cover, which shows the black and white Peter Hujar photograph Orgasmic man, in bookstores around New York, where he worked at the time, he thought it was “just another gay coming-of-age story.” But after it was recommended to him separately by two of his best friends, he felt compelled to read it. Soon after, he was sucked into its “dark abyss” and could not look away.

In another twist of fate, just as he was beginning to look at the logistics of bringing the novel to the stage a month later, he received a third copy of the book—this time from Yanagihara—with a “beautiful” note telling him that she would be ” honored” if he adapted it.

“I was shocked by it, I was devastated by it, I loved it at the same time,” he said. “Just that she cared, that Hanya cared, to tell a story so cruel, but that you can’t get away from. That’s the strange thing about the novel – you can’t get away from it. Even when you want to stop, you just can’t stop reading it. A miracle.”

What drew him to the story was the description of abuse – “I’ve never seen a description so haunting, so precise, so detailed” – and the story of friendship.

“I think it tells us that love does not conquer all. That love is not the ultimate solution to things as deep, as painful as a traumatic sexual experience.”

For a long time he has not been able to take the production to the UK or other English speaking countries due to a rights issue. As reported by Observer in February, the novel was to be made into a TV series.

Now he can finally take it to the Edinburgh Festival, which he describes as “one of the biggest festivals in the world”, before taking it “home” to the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York in October.

Despite it being a time of crisis – from the cost of living to pandemics, the climate and the war in Ukraine – he said the story remained timeless and universal.

Related: “How many liters of blood do we need?”: Ivo van Hove’s ITA in 20 years with shocking theatergoers

“Of course we live in times of war, depression, financial crisis, a crisis in nature, things like that, but people still go to the theater to connect deeply with other people,” he said. “Going to a ritual. And this is really ritualistic … It cleanses you a little bit.”

He is not afraid to tackle dark subject matter. “I only do things that feel urgent to tell on stage,” he said, adding that there is both personal and societal urgency.

Gives an example of Picasso’s painting Guernica, which thousands of people visit every year, he said: “Why do people specifically go to Madrid to see specifically that painting? I think that’s what art does to people. You look into the face of what you are inside, because we all have something of an animal in us, nobody is a real saint, nobody is just a real villain, there is always something more delicate about it, but we need to see the extremes in art.”

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