Anyone who has read Hanya Yanagihara’s much praised, and controversial, novel will already be expecting a harrowing experience in the stage adaptation. Previous runs of Ivo van Hove’s A Little Life have been performed entirely in Dutch, and have had a run time of up to six hours.
The London production, currently at the Harold Pinter Theatre, then transferring to the Savoy for an extension, is performed in English and is a more manageable three hours and forty minutes.
It does beg the question, what’s been cut from the longer version? Because what we have in London is already packed with more misery, trauma and heartache than it seems possible that any one lifetime could ever endure. The list of content warnings is extensive, but also justified.
Set in New York City we meet four friends; JB is a talented artist, photographing and painting the group, Willem, a successful actor, often missing because he’s away on a shoot, and Malcolm (Zach Wyatt), an architect, who we don’t see all that much of, but like most of the cast is almost always on stage.
The thrust of the story, comes from the fourth member of the group, Jude St. Francis, a lawyer with health and mobility problems, and a secretive past. It is that horrific childhood, and the scars that continue into adulthood, that slowly unravels over the course of A Little Life.
Jan Versweyveld’s set features screens on either side which play videos of slow meandering walks up Manhattan avenues, they help remind us what lies outside the shabby-chic apartment, which also doubles as a doctor’s office and a cabin in the woods. There’s also on stage seating, meaning some (very brave) audience members get to see everything up close. The string quartet positioned in front of the stage provide an ominous soundtrack to all that is unfolding.
It’s probably no accident that our protagonist is named St. Francis, there are repeated acts of self-harm, which thanks to prosthetics look disturbingly realistic, Harold (Zubin Varla) spends a great deal of time on his hands and knees with a bucket and a bottle of Dettol, mopping up blood. Jude is a troubled soul, and is often worried that he’ll have no-one to support him, and yet his support network is surprisingly large. Certainly there’s an argument early on with JB (Omari Douglas), but it seems no matter what happens in their lives, everyone is here to support Jude.
It’s in stark contrast to the character’s early life, where the adults Jude came across abused him; sexually, physically and mentally. Elliot Cowan portrays with terrifying clarity all of these characters, each one scarily similar, but also strikingly unique.
Nathalie Armin plays Ana, Jude’s therapist who appears in spiritual form, often guiding Jude to open up about what has happened to him and warning against further hurt. Zubin Varla’s Harold and Emilio Doorgasingh’s Andy provide further support is differing forms, although the background to these characters, and how they came to be in Jude’s life, is noticeably absent from this stage adaptation.
On stage throughout, with no respite whatsoever, James Norton is magnetic as Jude. The pain and suffering this one character has encountered comes through in every facet of Norton’s performance which radiates the sense of shame and self-hatred the character feels; the most disturbing scenes are difficult to watch, but impossible to turn away from. Jude’s relationship with Willem is heightened, in part, due to Luke Thompson’s caring and sensitive portrayal of the character.
Just when you think that things can’t get any worse for Jude, they do. There’s little in the way of hope or redemption in A Little Life, it coerces the audience into hoping that Jude may soon die, just to escape the misery of living. A deeply moving and affecting piece of theatre, A Little Life is unflinching and searing in its portrayal of just how awful life can be.