(Steve Dow’s article appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald, 12/20; Photo: Ivo van Hove’s four-hour Dutch-language play A Little Life is based on Hanya Yanagihara’s bestselling 2015 novel.CREDIT: JAN VERSWEYVELD.)

Warning: This article contains some graphic images

As the gay, middle-class son of a pharmacist, Ivo van Hove felt unaccepted growing up among the children of coal miners and farmers in a small village in rural Belgium in the 1960s and early 70s. He longed to escape.

His outsider status would eventually give him observational acuity as a theatre maker, however. “I was blessed my father and mother sent me to a boarding school, a very good one,” recalls the 64-year-old, sitting in the book-lined study of his Amsterdam apartment.

 “There, I became happy. There, I found myself, my sensitivities, my true love – namely, boys [to whom] I was sexually attracted; I didn’t know that before.”

Over six years’ boarding, relationships deepened his empathy. One Saturday evening, van Hove lost his best friend in a “stupid” bicycling accident, “probably he had been drinking too much”, presaging a long and lonely mourning.

Later, studying at art school in Antwerp, van Hove met lithography student Jan Versweyveld at a dance workshop. Partners now for 42 years, Versweyveld designs the sets on all of Van Hove’s productions.

“He’s a real original,” says van Hove, having just finished breakfast with Versweyveld at their home, which overlooks a canal. “Once he has read a play, he will remember it for the rest of his life.”

Van Hove has been director of the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam since 2001, and his productions feature stark visuals and visceral sex and physicality: the Dutch actor Eelco Smits has said the director engineers “explosive combinations” among his actors, “like a kid who lets insects fight”.

Van Hove’s take on the John Cassavetes film Opening Night featured at Melbourne Festival in 2010, and to Adelaide Festival he has brought Shakespeare’s Roman Tragedies in 2014 and Kings of War in 2018.

His work divides critics, peers and audiences. Now, van Hove’s four-hour Dutch-language play A Little Life, based on United States writer Hanya Yanagihara’s bestselling 2015 novel, is coming to Adelaide Festival in March.

Set in New York, it is a study of the lingering impact of trauma and tells the stories of four friends: lawyer Jude, actor Willem, artist Jean-Baptiste, and architect Malcolm.

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