Anyone who has read the book will know what to expect or if you haven’t then there are enough content warnings to prepare you at least for some of what is to come in Ivo van Hove and Koen Tachelet’s stage adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. In practice it is a blistering experience that realigns the source material to create a more integrated theatrical experience using plenty of techniques that van Hove more usually applies to working with his Dutch company – long, overlapping productions that blend past and present, interior and exterior with multi-character perspectives of years, sometimes decades of human experience with multiple layers of story all happening simultaneously. van Hove knows how to direct an epic and A Little Life is certainly that, an astonishing and astonishingly bleak experience that builds across more than three and half hours of performance.
It is never easy to adapt a novel of this scale and particularly one that became a word-of-mouth hit when it was released in 2015 and many will be very protective about how it has been translated. It is not the same on stage and van Hove has taken a number of liberties with the running order of the novel as well as the compression or simplification of some of the surrounding material. Jude is given even greater centrality than even Yanagihara gave him but at the expense of Malcolm, JB and even to an extent Willem, whose characters are slimmed down. But van Hove’s most interesting choice is to scatter more of Jude’s trauma through the story from the start, allowing the audience into the abuse and sexual assaults far earlier than the novelist does.
It is a decision that works really effectively in this adaptation, removing some of the melodrama of the novel and giving it a raw power, constantly underpinning and shaping Jude’s behaviour and reactions in ways that vitally motivate the development of his character and the endlessly tragic cycle of his life. Revealed by degrees, it gives the audience a greater stake in what must be a visual story onstage, creating a scenario in which the viewer knows more than some of the characters and is thus able to understand the different emotional reactions and beat of conversations. The novel is able to ‘tell’ at great length but the theatre-maker must ‘show,’ and van Hove’s reworking of the original text negotiates that adaptive process really effectively.
Part of that comes from the staging choices, a continual flow of activity with no obvious scene breaks but a choreographed sequence of ongoing life in which Jude’s experience reveals patterns of behaviour and self-destruction that becoming horribly compelling. A Little Life is a deeply harrowing story to read and seeing it performed somehow makes it all the more intense. But the repetitive and compulsive cycles of Jude’s self-harm are presented with considerable clarity, and in reordering the flow of memories more completely into the present day trajectory of the central character, van Hove and Tachelet draw a more direct line between the two and their consequences. We see Jude unpack the razor and prep kit he squirrels away in the bathroom and use it, again and again and again. We see the release it gives him and the pressure he feels when prevented from cutting, and there is real impact when his damaged body is carried to the hospital bed on several occasions by his perplexed friends, all in the dark about his past and, largely his present as well. But in giving the audience this extra insight, it makes us as powerless to help as they are.
There are a mixture of quite interesting narrative devices in which the characters address the audience to summarise their own experiences to the viewer directly. van Hove and Tachelet use this as an opportunity to utilise the interior monologue of the novel and dramatise some of the things characters feel about one another but would never say in conversation, such as JB’s early explanation of feeling like an outsider in the group of friends, giving useful background to the falling out the men have over his painting of Jude. At other times characters describe each other’s actions or help time to pass, noting what they did individually or as a group over months or years as they move from their 30s to their 50s, talking about themselves in the past tense as they go, as though their existence together is already a lost memory.
There is also a dead, conscience-like character, Ana, who appears to Jude at times of crisis, of which there are many, to guide him, His former social worker given an expanded role here (and the only female one) to encourage him to talk to his friends about his life – a continual recommendation made in the play that Jude refuses to heed. But, again, Ana becomes a useful device for translating Jude’s internal monologue and reasoning in tangible ways for an audience that works quite successfully alongside the straightforwardly dramatic scenes of ordinary conversation and interaction.
Together the easy flow of the production and these varied storytelling approaches gives the show a magnetism that is hard to look away from. It is horrible and very hard to watch but at the same time impossible not to. And it is almost relentlessly awful as the unbelievably dark truth about Jude’s life is revealed along with his treatment by a series of predators – all played by the same actor, Elliot Cowan, in a shrewd conflation of characters. And van Hove doesn’t hold back any more than Yanagihara does with depictions of self-harm, rape and physical as well as emotional abuse all played with a seriousness that avoids mawkishness and instead focuses on psychological compulsion and the building of a character who believes he deserves to suffer.
Some of this emerges within the physicality of the performance which uses nudity sparingly but to quite powerful effect. Jude’s body becomes a kind of battleground, something apart from himself which is used and damaged by others that turns him against his own flesh, so much so that harming it becomes his only form of control over a corporeal self that disgusts him. The audience is reminded early on that Jude is a character who doesn’t like to undress because of the scars on his body and he is raped twice while fully clothed. So when he is naked in this production, Jude is frail and terribly vulnerable in scenarios controlled by others who coerce or threaten him and inflict suffering on his body. But in that too is a kind of compulsion, exploring the events that are shaping his reaction to his body and the uses it has been put to, so hard-wired that he cannot escape them even with best friend Willem.
There are moments of happiness that temper this, of friendship and love with Jude finding acceptance with Harold who adopts him aged 30 and later in a serious relationship with Willem that, at least at first, is full of innocent goodness. But across the hours of this production, van Hove slowly increases the stakes, the destructive cycles get closer together, Jude recoils more and more from the interference of others, the ghosts of the past intrude more frequently, the levels of harm Jude needs to inflict on himself become larger, building and building to a poignant moment when it all has to end, where something finally snaps and all of the characters know there is nothing they can really do to prevent the inevitable. It is hard to watch but also hard not to.
van Hove has considerable experience with managing tone and the slow reveal of information as well as the building of inevitable tragedy over many hours, here applying similar techniques to his earlier Dutch language productions like Age of Rage that lasted for four hours at the Barbican which mixed Greek tragedies together in a singular story arc, as well as a similar approach to Shakespeare’s Roman tragedies before that. Notably, A Little Life was first developed and performed by the International Theatre Amsterdam at last year’s Edinburgh Festival, although it has lost more than 20-minutes of its running time in the move to London and into English. But this ability to balance staging effects, monumental storytelling and the management of audience engagement over long periods of time is really impressive, and the time flies by.
The show takes place in a minimalist living room and kitchen set designed by long-time collaborator Jan Versweyveld, a confined, intimate space that cuts the Harold Pinter stage into traverse with audience in front of and behind the action. It must feel claustrophobic, especially with actors on stage for long periods depending on how large a role they play in Jude’s life at the time. To the side, architect friend Malcolm has space to sit and design, artist JB paints while Willem, an actor, often sits at the back reading a script – all performing activities from their ‘real’ lives going on in the background of Jude’s struggles. In the centre, a free-standing sink that is the bathroom where Jude performs his harming ritual, and there is a sense of ceremony about it, as well as a space that becomes hospital rooms, the abbey, cars and everywhere the action needs to be. Versweyveld has created a compact but evocative space that feels like Jude’s life is continually and inescapably pressing in on him.
And it wouldn’t be a van Hove production without some use of film, here providing scenic backdrop of streets in New York that give location context on the side walls of the stage. But the slow running film never depicts the glamorous TV New York, but a fairly drab series of roads and buildings, endless and largely grey. Also designed by Versweyveld, the pressure Jude feels before cutting fuzzes and crackles through the screens, as though reality itself is distorting until the release brings a pink-tinge to that real world as it slowly returns to normal. An evocative device supported by live music that demonstrates the physical process that Jude goes through, almost immersive in its ability to help the audience to better understand his perspective and the forces driving him to act.
James Norton may not quite be the Jude of the novel but his performance of cumulative and eviscerating trauma is outstanding. His character sets himself apart from everyone else right from the start, always holding back and not fully able to engage. As van Hove takes Jude through a complex sequence of scenes taking place at different stages of his life, Norton moves seamlessly between the broken and destructive present and the childlike clinging of the younger Jude, deeply scarred by his experiences. The damage is palpable in Norton’s performance who seems to disintegrate as the story unfolds, physically bearing the effects of all those cuts and attempts to end his life on his blood soaked shirt. But the effect emerges through the body too and Norton’s Jude shrinks into himself more and more as the performance takes shape, curling inwards and entirely destabilised by the happiness on offer which is moving and deeply tragic.
Luke Thompson is just as impressive as Willem, Jude’s best friend who spends almost as much of the play on stage as the lead. Willem is a good person, kind and generous, supportive of his roommate in all things but Thompson shows the developing affection between them, which has a lovely innocent honesty about it, not seedy or coerced like the other relationships in Jude’s life but somehow purer. Yet that relationship eventually becomes extremely complicated and although Willem could have been quite a bland character, the difficulty of being with and constantly supporting Jude takes its toll in what is one of Thompson’s performances, eliciting a despair and frustrated desperation that is beautifully managed. The contrasting desire to support Jude and the rage at his own helplessness is engaging and painfully real.
There is strong support from the remainder of this small cast, particularly Zubin Varla who brings gravitas to the role of Harold, a kindly father figure who also finds himself at a loss to help his adopted son, as well as Omari Douglas as JB and Zach Wyatt as Malcolm, although neither gets as much stage time as their novel counterparts would suggest. Ultimately van Hove and this team have done great things with a tricky, enormously wide-ranging and imperfect novel, turning it into a tough and unremitting but quite breathtaking and powerful stage production.
A Little Life is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 18 June and then transfers to the Savoy Theatre fro 4 July-5 August. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog