Ivo van Hove’s ITA in 20 years with shocking theatre-goers

Ivo van Hovedirector: I am from a small village in Belgium. My parents wanted me to be a lawyer and thought I would never make a penny as a director. Art in Belgium was totally old-fashioned: there was no room for new talent, only the old crocodiles. Elsewhere, performance art and punk happened. The actress Dora van der Groen said go to the Netherlands because I would lose years without a job in Belgium. I ran a theater in the south of the Netherlands and took over Toneelgroep Amsterdam [which became Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (ITA)] in 2001. When I come to a large institution I like to honor tradition, but also innovate. I had worked a lot with my own generation, but decided that this would be an all-ages collection, so we would have actors in their 20s and 70s. It is a real ensemble – different opinions and experiences.

Marieke Heebinkactor: Amsterdam people are known to speak up; Belgians are very polite. So there was a kind of culture clash. We had to get to know each other. An ensemble is like a working family – you see each other’s faults.

A D’Huyscostume designer: It has been 20 years since I have worked with Ivo. He often has the same people around him – it reminds me of Fassbinder or Fellini. You know each other so well and there is a sensibility that runs very deep. It’s not just about taste, but about his characters. I know very quickly what he thinks of them.

Robert Ickewriter-director: There is something beautiful about how the ensemble has grown together. They are so diligent that they don’t get comfortable. You get depth, richness, bravery, confidence – and you don’t get staleness. It is a dream orchestra to conduct.

Fantasy ... Halina Reijn in The Fountainhead.

‘The productions are like rituals’… Halina Reijn in The Fountainhead. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Halina Reijnactor: When I was 13, I saw one of Ivo’s productions, Lulu, starring Chris Nietvelt. I wrote him a letter asking to join the company. He never wrote back! It was my dream to join them, but I was also scared when I finally did. They were the biggest company in Amsterdam with the biggest theater stars. The hierarchy changed when Ivo came – he was a young director and installed a different dynamic and gave young actors a lot of space. Before that, it was super scary.

Ivo van Hove: An ensemble is a lot of work. It is not easy and it costs money. We pay the actors every month and are very loyal to them.

Hans Kestingactor: If you work with the same group of people, there is no mistrust, no fear of making mistakes. We work much faster. Ivo made the ensemble a much more professional organization and elevated it to an internationally traveling theater company.

Marieke Heebink: The trip is very demanding. Before Covid, we were in a new place almost every other month – Tokyo, Singapore, New York, London.

Ivo van Hove: We walk everywhere so we decided to bring our own chef. International touring is part of our identity. It is not for nothing that we now call ourselves ITA. Our goal is to make the best theater in the world – that’s why the bookkeeper is there, the marketing people, the actors.

Jan Versweyveldstage designer: I love that we have two beautiful homes where we work. One of our Amsterdam theatres, the Stadsschouwburg, was built at the end of the 19th century. Then we had the opportunity to develop a second theater which took 10 years. It’s not an easy space – it’s quite big, quite open. It takes some experience to really benefit from it.

An D’Huys: With an ensemble, you know the bodies of the actors. I see how they move. The actor must live in the costume, which should be like a second skin. We use video projections on stage so that you are aware of accessories and details. I’m in charge of the makeup, but we like to see little wrinkles and sweat instead. With Ivo, it’s about murder, blood, aggression… I ask: how many liters of blood do we need? We have three extra costumes for each actor, but sometimes that’s not enough.

An incident ... Marieke Heebink and Chris Nietvelt in the Roman tragedies.

An incident … Marieke Heebink and Chris Nietvelt in the Roman tragedies. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Halina Reijn: When you do one of the multi-hour plays, you really go through it! But there’s nothing that compares – I miss it so much now that I’ve left the ensemble. The shows are about the essence of life – so if you are dealing with death or love privately, you go on stage and give your own feelings. It’s much deeper than delivering a line. The productions are like rituals or exorcisms.

Ivo van Hove: Every director is different and works in a different way. Simon McBurney, for example, uses improvisations. My company was very open when he came here – it’s in their DNA to be that way.

Jan Versweyveld: We always try to dig deep into the material and find a connection to our time and ideas now. At the start of a production, we take the ensemble and lead them into the new project. The first time we talk about it, everyone is invited and we give a visual presentation.

Marieke Heebink: When we start rehearsing, Jan shows us the set and says to have a look around. The first really big production I was in was the Roman tragedies. It was not just a big stage, but an event – ​​the audience sat next to us and ate.

Halina Reijn: Ivo has done stage versions of so many films: Antonioni, Visconti, Cassavetes. He always said you don’t have to see the movies. But it’s too tempting! And so exciting to see what he does with them. Ivo was one of the first to use video in such a profound way on stage. Video designer Tal Yarden is an absolute genius. It is a way of breaking through traditional theater expectations. I used a camera on stage for Mourning Becomes Electra – Ivo based his concept on Capturing the Friedmans, the horrifying documentary about a family who took videos of each other.

Jan Versweyveld: In the first conceptual phase of a production, we decide whether to use video, and the design is based on that. I use model boxes: Fountainhead was practically developed in the model box by inserting one paper after another. Ivo is not interested in models – he thinks they limit his imagination.

Ivo van Hove: I never think about the audience until the last few days before we perform. Then I sit back and try to act like them. If you do it from the beginning, you can’t be creative because you’re censoring yourself – this is too loud, too big. I never would have made Age of Rage if I had thought about the audience. There are four hours of war.

Gaite Jansen and Gijs Scholten Van Aschat in After the Rehearsal at the Barbican, London, in 2017.

Extensive use of video … Gaite Jansen and Gijs Scholten Van Aschat in After the Rehearsal at the Barbican, London, in 2017. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Hans Kesting: These are draining productions that ask a lot of you. I played Mark Antony in Roman Tragedies and Richard III in Kings of War. Big roles. You are almost in awe of them when you go on stage. We trust Ivo and where to go with him. He still has a lot of fire and fury, but has calmed down in his presentation. Good actors work well with him, lesser actors do better with him.

Robert Icke: The actors fight with each other as a family. They are not afraid of each other. You give them the scent and they go like a pack of wolves into the crime scene. They’re always looking for ways to make it more visceral.

Halina Reijn: I find acting and everything that comes with it super creepy and embarrassing and annoying. But Ivo creates a very clear context where you can be free. He judges no character. He simply holds up a mirror and makes the audience a witness to his own behavior.

Draining ... Kings of War at the Barbican in 2016.

Draining … Kings of War at the Barbican in 2016. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

Robert Icke: I did Oedipus in 2018 with Hans and Marieke. I had written an English script that was translated – they acted and spoke to each other in Dutch and to me in English. It had the potential to be deeply alienating, but I loved it.

An D’Huys: Before my very first meeting with Ivo, for Othello, I prepared many drawings, but it did not take more than five minutes. Ivo knows what he wants.

Related: Everything about theater and film: Ivo van Hove’s obsessions on the big screen in focus

Hans Kesting: There is a long monologue, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen”, in Julius Caesar. I thought it would be a long, difficult process to practice, but we did it in 20 minutes. Boom. Now we do [Hanya Yanagihara’s novel] A little life. I thought: how could you turn that book, with the graphic scenes, into a stage production? Ivo’s idea was to have me play all the bad guys in the story – I embody the evil. As I get older, when I play a dark character in his plays – and there are many of them – I have darker dreams. It does something to you.

Robert Icke: One day at Oedipus, Hans said to me in front of everyone: “This is an OK speech, but I think it would probably be better if it were a great speech!” I thought: You’re absolutely right, I’ll give it another try. Their constant goal is to create another amazing production that can play for 10 years and be one of those shows that goes around the world.

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