A War of Ideas: The Fountainhead
The iconoclastic Flemish director Ivo van Hove is hardly a stranger to New York theatergoers—downtown, uptown, and Broadway alike. In addition to creating a substantive body of work here, thanks to an ongoing relationship with New York Theatre Workshop, van Hove has also brought several productions to such venues as Lincoln Center and the Brooklyn Academy of Music with Toneelgroup Amsterdam—a Dutch repertory theater company he’s helmed since 2001. Now, from November 28 – December 2, van Hove and his company will return to BAM to present the American premiere of his presciently topical adaptation of controversial Russian-American writer Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. I caught up with van Hove mid-October via Skype, during a break from his rehearsals for Network, starring Brian Cranston (Breaking Bad) at the National Theatre in London.
Ivan Talijancic (Rail): Your production of The Fountainhead premiered in 2014. When did you start thinking about adapting the novel to the stage, and what was it that drew you to Ayn Rand’s work?
Ivo van Hove: I have to admit, I had never heard of Ayn Rand. Shocking, but true. In 2007, on the eve of the premiere of Roman Tragedies in Amsterdam, my assistant—who had also become one of my best friends—gave me a pocket edition of this book, in English, as the opening night gift. On the first page, he wrote: “Ivo, this is for you. And YOU have to read this NOW.” So that’s how it started. I took the novel with me during a vacation, thinking I would read a few pages and say, “Well thank you, but this is not for me.” But I started reading it—actually it was in New York—and I couldn’t stop. I read the whole novel in two or three days. For me, it was like a page-turner. I immediately saw the potential for adaptation, so [my company] applied immediately for the rights but could not get them. Then, we applied for the rights every three, four months, and at a certain point, in 2012, they were released. Then, of course, we had to prepare it, so it took us two years before we brought it to the stage. So that’s the story behind it. Initially, I was not at all aware of the political context of Ayn Rand—of course, between 2007 and 2014 I became very aware of it, with the Tea Party considering Atlas Shrugged as their Bible, and I also saw it in every bookshop that I came across.
Rail: As you know now, Rand’s work has been rather contentious here in the United States. A review of your production in the U.K. I recently came across praised your reading of the novel. Can you talk a bit about the interpretation, or rather, the angle you approached the novel with? What was your lens?
van Hove: For me, it was very important—as is the case with every production—to give every character his or her own value, instead of being opinionated about them. I tried to balance Howard Roark and Peter Keating—the two antagonists in the novel—and give them equal importance. Of course, they’re very different characters. For Ayn Rand, Howard Roark was her idol—the ultimate man, you could say—while Peter Keating was despicable. I tried not to do that, and neither did I change any text. As you said, there is a tendency in people to have very strong opinions about Ayn Rand. Before I did the production, I received a lot of negative reactions before people had seen it. “How can you bring this right-wing novel to the stage—especially you?” “Why are you going to push the sales of the novel in Holland?” All these things happened, you know—the sales did go up. It was an instant success, because people recognize something on different levels. The novel talks about an extreme form of liberalism, but it talks also about somebody who was an idealist, the Howard Roark character, who doesn’t want to give in to the markets—he would rather work in a quarry then design a house against his own modernist taste. Then, you have someone like Peter Keating, who joins the biggest architecture firm in New York—a firm that has a broad range in styles. This, for me, was of great interest: the world of architecture, and—in a strictly artistic sense—I admired Howard Roark. As an artist, I want to be an idealist—not somebody who makes his choices for opportunistic reasons but because he really believes in them. It was the same with The Fountainhead—a lot of people said: “Ivo, don’t do it.” And, in the true spirit of Howard Roark, I resisted. And I said: “Well, I feel deeply that I can and must bring this novel to the stage, not to idolize the right-wing thoughts—which certainly are part of it, and I didn’t avoid them.” At a certain point in the novel, Roark says: “it’s better not to pay taxes because why take care of a neighbor if you can’t take care of yourself—that’s your own fault.” That’s not my opinion, of course. As an artist, I idolize Howard Roark—as a citizen, I have my doubts.
Rail: In your view, how do you feel The Fountainhead interfaces with the present-day socio-economic climate, not just in the U.S. but in Europe as well?
van Hove: With the novel, as well as with the production, you’re bluntly confronted with the questions: “What’s your position? What would be your choice?” I think that’s what theater is for—not to say what you have to think, but to provide food for thought. In this production, I always called it “a war of ideas.” You are presented with fake ideas, something to reflect upon. I hope that this production offers that food for thought—even if one had preconceptions about Ayn Rand and about the novel, I hope to open minds a little bit. I spoke with a lot of people about Ayn Rand since 2007, and for a lot of young people, she was a huge inspiration because, apart from the right-wing principles, there is also hope, because she gives you the idea that you can do something with your life—you can be somebody like Howard Roark, resisting the rules of the market, and do it “your way” if you make that choice.
Rail: I was watching the preview video of The Fountainhead and then just remembering other works of yours that I’ve seen. What I find particularly compelling about the work with your company is how you manage to take your actors out of the comfort zone of naturalism, but at the same time get them to deliver performances that are rendered with complexity and conviction. How do you work with your actors to strike that balance?
van Hove: It’s a question I got so many times and I still don’t know the answer—you should really come to my rehearsals and tell me. I really don’t know! I’m working at the National Theater at the moment, and I cherish the idea of ensembles—so, even when I am not working with my own company in Amsterdam, and have a company of freelancers, like I do here in London, I try to turn them into an ensemble, so they take care of each other and the production. I try to create that atmosphere. In theater, there is a tendency to only look at the director—what he or she says—you [the director] are at the top of the hill. I immediately make clear to everybody in the room that I work with a team. For instance, the set and lighting designer Jan Versweyveld is there all the time. If I do work with video, Tal Yarden from Brooklyn is there all the time. There is a whole team there that people can relate to, and that’s also reassuring—when they have a concern or a question, they can go to Jan or Tal too and get an answer. So that’s one of the aspects of it, I think—that I create a kind of community where everybody can say whatever they want, whenever.
Rail: So, you’re not so much of a Howard Roark, then.
van Hove: In that way, no. At the end of the day, I can make my choices. Of course, as a director, one can make the ultimate choice, but I try to avoid it. You are right, because the art of theater is totally opposite of Ayn Rand’s conception of what an artist really is. For her, an artist is a pure individual making choices all his/her own. Working within the community, on the other hand, is not highly regarded.
Rail: Even though Rand was born in Russia, she created her body of work in literature here in America. Now that your production is headed for the United States, what are your feelings about that?
van Hove: It’s like playing Shakespeare in London. We are very much aware of the sensitivity of the work, but of course, I cannot change anything. We had a similar situation when we brought Angels in America—which is a very different work, but I say that because it was born in New York. We had it in the repertory [in Amsterdam] for four or five years, but performing it in New York was like a premiere—we were so nervous. I’m sure the same thing will happen at the [Brooklyn Academy of Music’s] Opera House when we are there at the end of November. We will be nervous as hell because we know that people know the novel really well [in the United States]. But we can only do what we have to do, and we will do our best to get our point across.
Rail: Your productions have been performed in New York quite a few times, of course, but BAM has been a home of sorts for much of your larger-scale work. From your past experience performing there, how do you anticipate the audience receiving this work?
van Hove: As you said, it is not the first time we perform there, and we’ve been at the Opera House with large productions already. Theater does not get presented often in that space, so Joe Melillo’s invitation is amazingly respectful towards our work. We were on that stage with Roman Tragedies and, more recently, with Kings of War; now we’ll come with The Fountainhead. These audiences know our work; they know that theater means a lot to us. They also know that we explore extremes, that we try to push the limits—the limits of what’s happening in our minds. As I said before, for me this production is a war of ideas, and I’m sure the New York audience will come in and at least give us all the chances in the world.