Theatre director Ivo van Hove has a soft spot for Ingmar Bergman. He has already staged Scenes from a Marriage (Scènes uit een huwelijk, 2005) and Cries and Whispers (Kreten en gefluister, 2009). Now in a full-length programme, he is directing two scripts by the Swedish theatre and film director: After the Rehearsal (Na de repetitie,1984), an essay for television about the meaning of theatre, and Persona (1966), a film Bergman himself regarded as one of his best works, about a female actor who abruptly breaks off in the middle of a scene and refuses to speak anymore. These are two short pieces about the meaning of art in our lives and in society, poised on the fragile border between imagination and reality, not moralizing but with the emphasis on man in all his inimitable complexity; tender but also as hard as nails.
Stage plays are often filmed, but you choose to do things the other way round: you have turned films by John Cassavetes, Luchino Visconti, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Michelangelo Antonioni and Ingmar Bergman into plays. Do you think theatre adds a dimension that film lacks?
Yes, I think it does. Film and theatre are two totally different disciplines. A film is made in the editing, whereas in theatre it is the live aspect that counts, with the actors themselves deciding from day to day what form that ‘editing’ will take. Of course I choose films in which the script or dialogue is very important, but at the same time, I only stage film scenarios if they deal with themes I don’t find in plays – or only find in a very different way. This applies both to After the Rehearsal (Na de repetitie) and to Persona: I don’t know of any script in the theatre repertoire that discusses theatre-making, acting and directing at such length. And a third important reason for me is that they are usually world creations; you feel as you would if you were directing Shakespeare’s Hamlet for the first time and so staging a world creation ….What determines my choice is that I see a world of my own based on the scenario itself. That was certainly the case with Persona, for example – a film I saw thirty years ago and which stayed with me. It is important to me that our stage production is an autonomous production which doesn’t refer to the film, even though we play every sentence as it is in the scenario and we present every situation as Bergman describes it. Then I think we can regard our theatrical interpretation as a success.
Do you find it easy to distance yourself from the visual aspects of a film and to concentrate on the script?
It might sound strange, but I have never seen some of the films. I only knew After the Rehearsal as a text. Before making a stage version of the film, I had never seen Cassavetes’ Opening Night either. For me reading the film scenario is the moment of truth. I want to experience the same excitement as when I read a good stage play. I must fall in love with it, have a gut feeling that something can be done with the text on stage and that I can create my own imaginary world in the process.
You describe Ingmar Bergman as one of your favourite authors. What do you find so fascinating about his work?
First and foremost Bergman takes a truly humanistic approach to life and people: without putting a gloss on things he sometimes portrays harsh reality, but he does so with gentleness, with clemency. And secondly – despite his Strindbergian, sometimes sarcastic or even cynical stance – he always leaves a ray of hope. Though people often do terrible things to each other, a Bergman film doesn’t leave you feeling crushed because there are always glimmers of a future. He is not a cultural pessimist but you can’t call him an optimist either. I find this ambiguity really attractive. The audience is both relieved and affected, in my opinion because Bergman’s scenarios deal with pivotal moments in our lives. “You have to touch the nerve, feel the pain to be able to heal”, Bergman has the doctor say in Persona. He even puts this into practice in all his scripts: he exposes the sensitive nerve, touches the painful areas we have experienced or will experience in our lives. In Cries and Whispers that is the process of dying; in Scenes from a Marriage it is human relationships and their crises… all stages in every human life.
In the current production you make two films into a theatrical diptych. Why did you choose these two works?
Bergman never intended to put the two together. What links these films is that the central characters in both plays are people from the world of theatre. After the Rehearsal is about a theatre director for whom the stage, making art, means everything, because everything has gone wrong in his personal life: he has only experienced chaos and broken relationships. The play deals with the fragile balance between theatre and reality. Can one live alone in art, can one shut oneself off from life? Persona, on the other hand, tells the story of an actor who abruptly stops acting in the middle of a play because suddenly she doesn’t see the point of it. This becomes a genuine illness: she doesn’t speak any more, either on stage or in everyday life. After a painful process it appears she is suffering from a deep sense of guilt about the lack of love she feels for her son. Both plays relate to each other like yin and yang; they are each other’s opposite. So when you bring them together, they give an even more complete picture. After the Rehearsal might be described as an ode to the theatre, whereas Persona questions the point of art. It is typical of Bergman that he never makes dogmatic or moralizing statements. He puts forward an idea, shows possibilities and difficulties, and then switches to the opposite, so that one surprise follows another. Bergman’s scenarios evolve like the threads of a spider’s web, creating what is in fact one large body of work.
In this diptych there are moments of almost superhuman intensity. As a theatre-maker can you distinguish between theatre and reality?
Fortunately I can, yes, but of course you also try to push back the boundaries. When you make theatre, you want to do it in as correct a form as possible, slicing away at it and keeping only the essence, and acting is the most important part of that. Rehearsing is a collective process. I don’t want to impose anything, but I do want to stimulate. You stimulate actors, you conjure up images and that involves close teamwork, great trust. We always want to achieve the best. I am happy to take the risk that something might go wrong. When this play had its première, we had no idea if people would accept it but, as it turned out, Bergman does have a way of touching people!
At the end of Persona the doctor says rather defiantly that you have to be “fairly infantile” to be involved in theatre. I assume you don’t share that opinion, but what then do you see as the significance of theatre in society?
I firmly believe that art is an absolute necessity for society. In all forms of art – whether you are looking at a painting in a museum or reading a book at home – you are confronted by an imagined, fictitious world, and that fiction deals with our greatest fears, our worst nightmares and our deepest desires. An air of threat and fear emanate from Rothko’s large paintings, Hugo Claus’ wonderful poems describe his deepest desires … It is very important that people learn to recognize their often very violent instincts. We are fascinated by the story of Macbeth, the monarch who murders children. What has horrified us in real life, we go and see at the theatre so that we can accommodate the violent, destructive instincts that dwell deep inside us. Art is a purification process.
Interview by Reinder Pols