Director Ivo van Hove has always been drawn to staging films for the theatre; for his latest play, Obsession, he turns to one of the 20th-century greats, Luchino Visconti.
For Ivo van Hove, Luchino Visconti is ‘one of the great masters of the 20th Century’. Since the director and his long-term designer Jan Versweyveld took over at Toneelgroep Amsterdam, they’ve staged more Visconti films than they have Ibsen plays. The same goes for other film-makers: more Ingmar Bergman than Arthur Miller, more Cassavetes than Chekhov. ‘There comes a certain point when you’ve done a lot of plays,’ he says with a smile. ‘We were searching for challenges.’
When British theatre turns to cinema, it tends to do so for commercial reasons: big money productions with familiar titles. It’s less about art than it is about audience. Not for Van Hove. He drills down deep. ‘It’s like a world premiere,’ he enthuses. ‘It’s as if Hamlet comes through in the mail and you have to stage it for the very first time.’
The pair have been staging films for the last twenty years, the first coming when a friend nudged them towards John Cassavetes’s Faces (1968). Van Hove’s immediate response was to laugh: ‘Almost impossible – but then I read the script and it was written just like a play, eleven long scenes.’ They staged it for the Holland Festival in 1996.
Since then, cinema has opened up a wealth of new material to them – not just stories, but subjects and styles. ‘I found in these scripts themes and characters and extreme situations that I couldn’t find in other plays,’ Van Hove continues. ‘Otherwise, why make life difficult?’
Screenplays need reformulating for the stage. To that end, they tend to avoid rewatching the film in question. It’s 30 years since either man saw Visconti’s Ossessione (Obsession, 1943) and they have no plans to revisit it ahead of their production. They work, instead, from transcripts or original texts, making very few changes en route.
‘A film script has no intention of being theatre,’ says Van Hove. It is, Versweyveld explains, ‘a totally different texture: a tsunami of descriptions, locations and shots.’ All of that needs condensing into a single space, distilling into a single gesture. For Antonioni Project (2011), green screen techniques caught the director’s dislocation. Scenes from a Marriage (2013) laid several scenes on top of one another, an illustration of the way one relationship contains many.
Ossessione is an illicit romance. Gino, a drifter, stops at a roadside restaurant and starts a blazing affair with the owner’s wife Giovanna, and together, they conspire to murder her husband. Van Hove points to its patterns. Giovanna has all she needs to live, but she’s trapped by her marriage. Gino’s free, but has nothing. Their affair turns that over. ‘He becomes bounded by his passion for her.’ As for Giovanni, it sets her free, but at what cost?
‘There’s a reason I love it,’ the director continues. ‘Hidden in this naturalistic drama, there’s a Greek tragedy. It’s inescapable somehow. Fate.’ He said the same thing of The View from the Bridge (2014). When pressure builds up, something snaps and, as in Miller, the pressures are societal. ‘It’s about more than just three people. It’s the constrictions of a society that doesn’t allow real passions and extremities. Who are we to judge how people feel for one another? How can we say what’s good and what’s bad?’
On 11 May, NT Live will broadcast Obsession to cinemas. Find your nearest venue and book.