I saw Ivo van Hove’s Roman Tragedies on Sunday. There is no doubt that the work is a significant achievement, an evening of towering ambition and awe-inspiring commitment, a display of an actorly virtuosity very unlike that of most Anglophone actors (a difference in kind, not necessarily in quality), and a show that offers a fairly unique audience experience – though I remain unconvinced that giving spectators the chance to walk and sit on stage is really an “immersive” gesture, given that none of the characters acknowledge the audience’s presence, except for the few moments when we are turned into impromptu Romans.

What impressed me most was how van Hove and his design and video team played with notions of space and time: in the Julius Caesar section, the two husband-and-wife scenes from the play, Caesar and Calpurnia, Brutus and Portia, are intercut, but the action unfolds in spatial simultaneity: the four actors share the same part of the stage, a large sofa and an even larger desk, with the two women at one point sitting next to each other. But it is also filmed live and broadcast on the large screen suspended over the stage, and on that screen, the relationship between the four characters is reconfigured yet again. Blocking and videography provide something like an analytical commentary on the parallels between the scenes and the characters, even as the two pairs of actors perform their dialogue as if they were in fact alone, and as if they were in greater physical proximity than they actually are. It’s a highly artificial setup, but, thanks to the fully embodied naturalism of the performance, it’s surprisingly easy to block out the artifice.

Portia; Calpurnia and Caesar; Brutus.

Another striking moment: close to the end of the show, as Antony and Cleopatra is reaching its tragic conclusion, Antony and Cleopatra have one of their last face-to-face encounters. On stage they sit far apart, on two sofas a good three meters apart. On the screen, though, they are side by side, Cleopatra’s hand almost touching Antony’s – because the images of either character produced by two cameras are blended so craftily that the division between the two frames disappears. It’s a brilliant use of technology to disrupt representation, a clash between the two versions of Antony and Cleopatra we see in front of us (and since at this point in the show, the audience has had to return to their seats, they are actually in front of almost everyone in the house). Where elsewhere in the show, van Hove allows audience members to explore a diversity of perspectives, here, he offers us two irreconcilable perspectives himself.

So: it was an impressive and highly accomplished show, and it did some extraordinarily interesting things with space. But I must admit that it also left me puzzled and frustrated in some respects (Brutus’s soliloquies in particular made little dramaturgical sense to me in their toneless and deadpan delivery – a stylistic choice that sat very oddly with an otherwise determinedly realist mode of acting). And I can’t say that it impressed me more than many German productions of similar scale and ambition that I have seen and written about in recent years.

It came as a bit of a surprise, then, to find Matt Trueman asking in a blog post if the production was “the most significant piece of theatre in Britain in a decade” – and, more surprising still, to see Trueman answer his titular question in the affirmative, arguing that “since 2009, Ivo van Hove and [his designer] Jan Versweyveld have changed the fundamentals of British theatre.”

There are two claims here: that van Hove has taught British directors a new way of doing plays, mostly old plays; and that van Hove is unique in his directorial approach, in particular in his use of space. The argument relies on a skewed notion of “European” theatre that isn’t Trueman’s alone, though it his argument on which I will focus here; and it offers a narrative of influence that, also not unusually, focusses on a single event rather than the impact of distributed forces and developments over time.

Here’s Trueman: “More than any other theatre artists, van Hove and Versweyveld are sculptors of the stage. They create theatrical objects: events with fixed configurations in both time and space. Each is a complete whole. It has its own internal logic.”

The elaboration of the bold opening claim is arguably close to meaningless: if we don’t take it absolutely literary, it’s true of every stage production, no matter how reactionary or radical; if we take it literally, it would mean the productions Trueman is talking about have no frame of reference outside their own, in which case they should be completely incomprehensible. (I don’t think that’s what he means.) Much more importantly, though, the leading assertion, which gets repeated as a pull quote, is absurd. It isn’t even an obviously accurate assessment if we’re only talking about British theatre artists: it simply ignores Katie Mitchell, for one, whose aesthetic is at least as rigorous in creating events with their “own internal logic” as van Hove’s, and who shapes the stage space in ways that are as innovative and similarly unsettle viewing conventions.

But that’s not the claim Trueman is making: the word “British,” after all, is conspicuously, and necessarily, absent from his statement. And as an assertion about all theatre makers, or even all European theatre makers, it’s a serious overstatement. Sure, he’s largely right that “it’s not just that van Hove pulls plays into the present, dishing them up in modern dress and panning for contemporary resonance. He hoiks plays out of specific settings altogether.” But that has been the mainstream of not just German theatre, but much Eastern European theatre and, yes, Dutch and Belgian stage work since at least the 1980s. The basic idea that a stage is a space first and foremost, not a literal representation of the world outside it, is almost precisely a century old: it goes back to Leopold Jessner’s production of Wilhelm Tell in 1919, on a set by Emil Pirchan that consisted of nothing but platforms and steps.

“Sculpting space” may not be what all continental directors do, but it’s certainly one predominant mode of staging. Take Michael Thalheimer, famous not just for slicing the plays he directs down to a hard core of conflicts and ideas, but also for putting his actors into sets (usually designed by Olaf Altmann) that impose their own physical logic on their movements. In The Rats it was a low-ceilinged box in which none of the actors could stand upright. In The Weavers a steeply raked staircase, as broad as the stage. In Emilia Galotti a funnel of untreated wood, narrowing dramatically upstage. In A Doll’s House another funnel, black this time, very wide downstage, extremely narrow upstage, and very, very tall. In Tartuffe the action takes place inside a slowly rotating cube, in which the actors are forced to crawl and hang on to items of furniture when they can’t stand up. What Thalheimer and Altmann do with scenography and blocking makes van Hove and Versweyveld’s work look conventional – and that’s just one of many examples.

Altmann's set for Die Ratten (Deutsches Theater)

Altmann’s set for Die Ratten (Deutsches Theater)

Take Katrin Brack’s designs, often for Dimiter Gotscheff and Luk Perceval (one of the Netherlandish directors whose influence easily rivals van Hove’s – another obvious name would be Johan Simons). Brack has created space out of foam; out of confetti; out of glitter; and most astonishingly, in Gotscheff’s production of Ivanov, out of fog (and last year, for Simon Stone’s John Gabriel Borkmann at the Burgtheater, out of fake snow). Take Bert Neumann’s work at the Volksbühne in Berlin, from the early 1990s to his untimely death last year – whose last design involved installing an enormous asphalt-covered false floor over the entire auditorium, which in some productions functioned as the stage (with the audience sitting on risers on the actual stage) and in others became the place from which spectators, lounging in bean-bag chairs, could watch productions unfold all around them. Or take Florian Lösche’s sets, which may (in Woyzeck) consist of a huge net suspended over the otherwise empty cavernous stage area of the Thalia Theater in Hamburg; or of an enormous rotating sphere (sitting like a monolith in the middle of an empty black space) in and around which the action of Danton’s Death unfolds.

Lösche's set for Woyzeck (dir. Jette Steckel)

Lösche’s set for Woyzeck (dir. Jette Steckel)

Or take Johannes Schütz’s work, especially the shallow, unescapable boxes he designed for Jürgen Gosch’s Chekhov productions at the Deutsche Theater – spaces to which Versweyveld’s design for Hedda Gabler evidently owes a real debt. Or take the sets Anna Viebrock regularly builds for Christoph Marthaler – some of which have appeared in Edinburgh: designs that evoke railway stations or waiting rooms or 1960s office buildings, but are always bigger, emptier, more haunted than their real-world models, and in which the slow movement of actors structures both space and time.

What Trueman describes and claims as van Hove and Versweyveld’s unique achievement is in fact totally commonplace in continental Europe, and in particular in German and Dutch theatre culture. It’s so common, it even registers in the language: what do set designers do? They build “Räume” – spaces. Part of the excitement of the rehearsal process is discovering what kind of performance, what kind of art will be made possible by the space the designer has built – and what it will not allow. Anyone who wants to read up on this century-old tradition, and how actors, designers, and directors talk about it these days, is in luck: there are great, well-illustrated, and bi-lingual publications on the subject. For starters, I’d recommend this and this. There’s also a wonderful website about set design maintained by the Goethe Institut, in English, right here.

The article exaggerates van Hove and Versweyveld’s standing in the theatre world across the channel. Trueman’s not alone in this; his perspective mirrors that of the English-language press more broadly, or at least those journalists who don’t dismiss their work altogether. But what about the idea that they have had a singular impact on British theatre since the first touring appearance of Roman Tragedies at the Barbican?

Trueman thinks that their spatial sensibility, their creation of shows that strive to be a “complete whole” “has caught on across Britain and beyond. It’s in the slow spin of Robert Icke’s idle Uncle Vanya or the sliding frames of The Red Barn. It’s in Joe Hill-Gibbins’ deconstructed auditoria, where Edward II’s exiles enter from the theatre’s roof and Measure for Measure’s invisible underworlds exist offstage. It’s in Soutra Gilmour extending the Olivier theatre’s décor into Antigone’s world and in the slow light fade of Nat Martello-White’s Torn, tricking our body clocks and draining our bodies. Much, much more besides.”

It’s a bit of a head-scratcher, this statement. Partly because Trueman seems unsure about whom to credit with what — but again, he’s hardly alone in this: Robert Icke and Joe Hill-Gibbins get to eclipse their set designers (Hildegard Bechtler, Bunny Christie, Lizzie Clachan, and Miriam Buether, respectively), but Soutra Gilmour gets credit over the director of that Antigone (Polly Findlay), whereas Martello-White apparently was more influenced than either the director or the designer of the play he wrote (Richard Twyman and Ultz). And partly because he ignores fairly obvious other lines of influence. To name just a few: two of those set designers are actually from Germany, and presumably brought some of their own aesthetic background with them to the UK. Hill-Gibbins’ work seems rather more recognizably influenced by the use of space and video in theatres such as the Schaubühne (on the milder side) or the Volksbühne (on the more radical end of the spectrum) – there is far more of Ostermeier in his shows than of van Hove, with a light dusting of Castorf for good measure. (In that context, I’d say one could certainly argue that the Schaubühne’s touring productions of Hamlet and Enemy of the People — for all its flaws, an arguably more interactive show than all of van Hove’s, even Roman Tragedies — may also have had some influence on UK theatre makers. And it’s worth noting that the Schaubühne is also not exactly at the cutting edge of German theatre.)

It’s the first of these points that really needs emphasizing. Most of the designers on those productions also work in opera, a far more international enterprise than theatre, and one might assume that this experience has not left them unaffected. But in recent years, internationalization has become a significant influence on British theatre design beyond the opera. Clachan, for instance, has built spaces for Katie Mitchell in Germany and Austria – to suggest that the experience of seeing a single Dutch show in 2009 was a catalyst in her work seems hardly plausible (even assuming she did in fact see The Roman Tragedies then). Or take another designer unnamed by Trueman, Chloe Lamford: she has worked with Mitchell in Germany and Holland, but was also the designer on Icke’s break-through production (1984); for the Dutch director Lies Pauwels, she designed Knives in Hens at the National Theatre of Scotland in 2011 and, more recently, Het Hamiltoncomplex in Antwerp. The European influence on British theatre designers is pervasive and can’t be limited to a single show – it’s not even clear that that particular single show was especially influential for any of them.

In fact, ascribing this kind of impact to one Dutch import seriously short-changes British designers who, more than British directors, are not simply influenced by Europe but increasingly work as European artists. In that area of theatrical creation, Britain is an active participant in in international conversation, not an isolated island waiting to be enlightened by two middle-aged men from Amsterdam. And it’s worth pointing out that in that conversation, van Hove and Versweyveld aren’t among the most crucial voices. Really, we should seriously reconsider the role of the people who invent the spaces in which shows evolve and take place: it’s hardly a leap to think that directors working with designers with such European aesthetic sensibilities will be influenced at least as much by their collaborators as by any single production they may have seen.

There is no question that Roman Tragedies was an important show when it first appeared in London. Its influence on Robert Icke is evident (though in its consequence, easy to overstate, as I’ve argued in my review of his Hamlet). The production is certainly part of the larger cultural shift that has made the wall between British and continental theatre more permeable than it once was. But to ascribe to it a kind of paradigm-shifting power ignores the many other artists and shows that contributed as much to preparing for that shift and to making it happen. It’s more than a little unfortunate that many of those ignored artists are women. It’s also a little odd how persistently Katie Mitchell’s importance in this development gets downplayed: it is no coincidence that many of the designers I mentioned earlier had their first professional exposure to working on the continent as part of the team on her productions. Even if Mitchell’s own aesthetic may not have been adopted by a generation of younger directors, her most powerful influence may be institutional — she has found a way to bring British theatre artists with her to the continent, where they have been able to immerse themselves in a different way of staging plays and making performances. There aren’t too many precedents for this kind of cultural exchange in UK theatre.

While I don’t doubt that exposure to a single production can have a startling effect of the “I didn’t realize that was an option” or the “that’s the kind of work I want to do” variety, it also seems obvious to me that a sustained engagement with continental modes of theatre must have a far more fundamental influence. It’s that sort of engagement that, say, David Lan has made possible at the Young Vic; and it was that sort of engagement that Sean Holmes’ Secret Theatre project was all about. Actual collaboration with artists from elsewhere becomes possible through such institutional structures. For instance, Johannes Schütz created the set for Hill-Gibbins’ Midsummer Night’s Dream this year: was that a collaboration in any way influenced by van Hove and Versweyveld? Presumably not. Or consider someone like Benedict Andrews – an Australian working in both Berlin and London, whose production of Streetcar Names Desire at the Young Vic was designed by Magda Willi – who is Swiss and has worked primarily in Germany (including on Andrews’ production of Streetcar at the Schaubühne, which featured a completely different design). That Young Vic Streetcar, like Icke’s Vanya, was set on a slowly spinning revolve. Was that, too, influenced by van Hove and Versweyveld?

Turning a single continental production into a unique agent of change doesn’t just displace a more complex narrative of influence, though. It also ignores aspects of the history of UK theatre that anticipated and prepared the ground for rethinking the stage as a space (rather than a representation of reality). After all, why does a performance culture that can trace its DNA back to the stages of Shakespeare’s time need to look to Amsterdam for the news that a production can “exist on stages, not on sets, not in settings”? A performance culture that has, for the past twenty years, had a permanent reminder of that heritage in the replica of Shakespeare’s Globe? A performance culture that, if the Globe is too reactionary and Shakespeare too long ago for your taste, only a few decades ago produced not only Peter Brook’s Midsummer Night’s Dream and its white box of a set, but also Brook’s internationally important and influential theoretical reflections on just how little is needed for something to become a stage, The Empty Space? (It’s symptomatic, I think, that the designer of that Dream so often goes unmentioned. It obviously wasn’t Peter Brook. It was Sally Jacobs.)

But I want to end on a subject that is peculiarly absent from Trueman’s argument — and, to be fair, from almost all discussions of continental productions in Britain: acting. As crucial as designers are in creating spaces, those spaces are activated only once actors enter them. Without performers, they remain incomplete. And how actors co-create space out of the conditions the set designer has provided for them will differ radically from ensemble to ensemble, and from theatre culture to theatre culture. The most remarkable aspect of The Roman Tragedies for me was not the camera work, nor the set, nor the ability to walk around among the actors (Punchdrunk has created more immersive environments by far). None of those things seemed especially unusual even in Britain, particularly on the Barbican stage. What did feel startlingly out of place was how these Dutch actors used their bodies and voices: the lack of compromise or restraint, the daring of the theatrical gestures, the emotional availability, the sense that realism did not require understatement, the raw naturalism of kisses, embraces, fights. The sheer embodied quality of it all: the sweat, the saliva, the tears. It’s rare to see actors in the English-speaking world – not just in Britain, in Canada and the US as well – allow themselves to be present in such unvarnished form, to put their own bodies and voices in front of an audience quite so insistently. These are not performers that vanish into characters or serve a text: to the extent that characters and texts come to life in this kind of theatre, they do so by virtue of the performers’ irreducible presence. It’s an actors-first kind of theatre.

Look, ma: real tears!

Without the ability to draw on – or shape – this kind of ensemble, van Hove’s work loses much of its lustre. His National Theatre Hedda Gabler (a revival of a production originally staged and designed for the New York Theatre Workshop in 2004, and later restaged by his Toneelgroep Amsterdam) is a prime example of how mixed the results can be when he is working with actors that don’t consistently deliver the type of performance his work requires — and with whom he has not had sufficient time to work. A View from the Bridge was an obvious counter-example, and I expect it is no coincidence that it was a new production, built with and around the particular actors van Hove was working with at the Young Vic; as a consequence, it felt like a show that met its performers half-way, resulting in an exceptional blend of continental and British performance aesthetics.

But if an essential element of van Hove’s theatre is his actors, it is difficult to see how watching those actors perform can have had a signal, single-cause influence on any British theatre makers. Actors don’t change overnight. Acting styles and traditions evolve, they don’t undergo a sudden transformation. And more even than directing and design approaches, what actors do and how they do it develops through practice, not as the result of seeing a show, once.

Which is why it matters that I almost felt compelled to eat my words on the difference between continental and British performers after watching Leo Bill play Bottom in Joe Hill-Gibbins’s Midsummer Night’s Dream. The total lack of embarrassment in that performance, the physical abandon, the willingness to play to a point of exhaustion (running, crawling, dragging himself around the perimeter of Schütz’s mud-field of a set) – all of that felt rather like the kind of work the Toeneelgroep actors delivered in The Roman Tragedies — although I suspect that part of what enabled Bill’s performance was that he gave it in a comedy, and in the role of an outsized character who spends half the play as a human-ass hybrid. Not for a moment do I think, though, that his performance had much to do with his having seen van Hove’s work. On the other hand, I am certain that it did have something to do with the year he spent in the Secret Theatre ensemble. Because that is how performance cultures change: through work, through practice, through sustained hands-on experimentation. Not through going over to the Barbican once, eight years ago, and being dead impressed.

[Note (27 March): After a day or two of reflection, I’ve decided to edit this piece a little, and to change its title. This is not a post about Matt Trueman. It’s a post about how influence in theatre works, and about how our stories about that influence tend to focus on specific events or productions rather than on more complex developments — and on directors rather than on other theatre artists, in particular designers and actors. The point of writing this was not to voice my disagreement with a critic whom I regard as a vital voice in the public discussion of British theatre, and someone who deserves praise for pushing back against a reactionary critical mainstream. My point was that we need to tell more complicated narratives about change; that we need to understand on how many levels British and “European” theatre are already connected, but also where they differ; and that we need to value and recognize the institutional and structural conditions that are required for actual change and artistic development to occur. I never substantively edit my posts, but in this case, it seemed like the right thing to do.]

2 Responses to British Theatre under the Influence (of much more than The Roman Tragedies)

  1. Liv says:

    The continental versus British theatre denomination is absurd. You’ve seen and are influenced by van Hove’s theatre much more than many continental European countries. Continental theatre is an abstract term created by Britain that people in continental Europe don’t understand. Usually, what you mean is German/Dutch/Belgian/ theatre. Many people in continental Europe don’t even know who van Hove is.

    • Holger Syme says:

      Thank you for the comment, Liv, but I’m not sure how that quite applies to what I’ve written — I don’t really disagree. I was quite careful (if not, I realize, completely consistent) in specifying particular national theatre cultures; I realize there are significant differences. However, I don’t think the notion that British theatre can be distinguished from work that almost only gets done in continental Europe is absurd. Yes, that distinction is much sharper between Britain and, say, Switzerland than between Britain and France — or (as far as I can tell) Britain and the Scandinavian countries . But I think it’s more true than not to suggest that there has historically been more interchange between the European theatre cultures outside of Britain than between those theatre cultures and Britain — and that certainly has changed in the past decade. (Before that, British theatre artists left to work on the continent; now, the flow of traffic is going both ways.) For what it’s worth, I don’t live in the UK. I grew up in Germany and live in Canada….

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