A Little Life
Based on the novel by Hanya Yanagihara adapted by Koen Tachelet, Ivo van Hove and Hanya Yanagihara
Wessex Grove, Gavin Kalin Productions, Playful Productions, Creative Partners Productions, Eilene Davidson Production, Patrick Gracey Productions, ROYO, Rupert Gavin & Mallory Factory Partnership, New Frame Productions / David Adkin, Roth-Manella Productions
Harold Pinter Theatre
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Hanya Yanagihara’s harrowing 2015 novel is over 800 pages and Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s original Dutch language version of this production (which played in the Edinburgh Festival last year) lasted over four hours. There have either been cuts or English plays much faster, for it is now about twenty minutes shorter. That is still a long haul, but von Hove’s production is constantly engaging, you don’t notice the time pass.
Though the novel is mainly chronological, this adaptation moves backwards and forwards in time with scenes blending into each other. Jan Verweyveld’s setting, with part of the audience on stage behind the action, puts everything necessary on stage at the same time, a bathroom washbasin set in the middle of a studio apartment, soft furnishings and the actors, who gather onstage as the audience assemble, staying in view, sometimes cooking stage right beyond the main acting area or busy stage left in an architect’s office and an artist’s studio or just reading on a sofa.
That may sound confusing, but this seamless staging comes across with great clarity as it unfolds the story of Jude St Francis (James Norton) and his closest friends, who all met at college. Each of them is clearly identified at the very beginning. They are aspiring actor Willem (Luke Thompson), architect Malcom (Zach Wyatt), who has become successful despite not being ambitious, and Jean-Baptiste, whom they call JB (Omari Douglas), a figurative painter who certainly is. There is also Jude’s former professor Harold (Zubin Varla) who becomes a father figure, and indeed adopts Jude when he is 30, and Jude’s doctor Andy (Emilio Doorgasingh), for Jude has difficulty with his legs and pain in his spine. The result of an accident he tells his friends. The truth is such more sinister.
Jude has a circle of loving friends, but they don’t know his secrets; the audience learns the harrowing details before they do. Childhood sex-abuse and vicious exploitation has traumatised Jude; it hasn’t stopped him becoming a successful lawyer but it has made him a persistent self-harmer.
James Norton gives an award-winning performance as Jude, He perhaps looks a little too fit for someone in pain, but it is a performance of raw honesty, painful to experience. Whether the nine-year-old Jude needing love and made to do things he doesn’t really understand, the young teenager giving sex for survival or the mature man struggling to share love, he gives it a constant reality.
As his gentle room-mate Will, struggling to find a way of handling life with a person so damaged and falling in love with Jude, Luke Thompson delivers a sensitive performance. We don’t learn a great deal about Will’s life or that of any of Jude’s friends, there is too much to tell of Jude’s own story, but this is a consistently strong cast. Zubin Varla as father figure Harold, Omari Douglas as JB and Zach Wyatt as Malcolm make rounded characters out of very little material as does Emilio Doorgasingh as doctor Andy who eventually has to make them aware of Jude’s condition while as psychiatrist Ana, Nathalie Armin tries to get him to unburden himself.
Elliot Cowan gives a particularly nuanced performance as Brother Luke. He is the monk who, with a strange kind of love, spirited Jude away from the monastery orphanage where the monks abused him only to make his life even more hellish. Cowan also plays other evil and violent men in Jude’s life, but as Luke, he manages to show care at the same time as exploiting him and introducing him to self-harm.
This fluid production moves easily between shared memories, direct address to the audience and enactment including brutal violence and the playing out of self-harm as Jude prepares antiseptic, razor and dressings to cut himself.
Covering 30 years of friendship (and right back to age 9 in Jude’s case), A Little Life is an extended story that gives little sense of the world outside the immediately personal. Everything looks relatively modern but the absence of mobile phones suggests a vague date span. These friends are encountered as New Yorkers but this play is not rooted in any specific time, there is no reference to political events, not even to the AIDS epidemic. It concentrates on the bond we call love in the various forms that draw these men together together and the opposite dark distortion that has left Jude so damaged.
A Little Life is not any easy watch. It is a painful one but as well as is bleeding raw nakedness, there is also a picture of genuine caring. In the end insupportable, Jude’s life presents a bleak picture but, despite the events that pile up, his friends and their relationships have a humanity that brings hope.
After its run at the Harold Pinter Theatre A Little Life will also run from 6 July - 5 August at the Savoy Theatre.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton