I really struggled to pinpoint how I felt about ‘A Little Life’, super-director Ivo van Hove’s in-many-ways-brilliant stage adaptation of a novel so bleak it borders on the unethical. Should the fact that the parent novel has already sold millions of copies automatically exempt the play from scrutiny over its similarly catharsis-free, apocalyptic vision of the life of an abuse survivor? Or is the concentrated hit of a theatre production – three hours 40 minutes but still a lot breezier than the 700-page book – simply confirmation that author Hanya Yanagihara went beyond the pale?
Whatever the case, I joined in the ovation at the end. Of course I did: we clap for the actors, and James Norton gives a truly titanic performance as New York lawyer Jude, who we follow from childhood to deep middle age. There has been some distracting online sniggering about the fact he strips off a couple of times (audience members now have stickers placed over their phone lenses). But the nudity feels entirely justified. Both of the naked scenes are moments of agonising vulnerability: not a sexy fantasy but the pathetic sight of Jude’s scarred, broken body, exposed like an insect shucked from his shell. He has suffered horrific abuse and little truly remains on him but his self-loathing. And yet Norton gives him a fey, not-of-this-world vulnerability that is hugely appealing – you can see why almost every other character in the story is drawn to this little boy lost, each hoping they might be the one to persuade him of his real worth.
I suppose you could draw a line between this performance and Norton’s most famous screen role as ‘Happy Valley’ psychopath Tommy Lee Royce: both are abused children who grow into damaged men; neither has been able to fully cross into adulthood. The big difference is that while Royce takes it out on others, Jude takes it out on himself, albeit just as sickeningly. Although the truly punishing physical stuff is kept to a minimum, there are frequent, eye-watering scenes of self-harm: by the end, Norton’s shirt is stained red with Jude’s blood. It’s a huge performance, magnetic and repellent, the linchpin of the play.
It’s a meditative treatise on how life is unutterably cruel and shit
Although Jude is the book’s main character, its prodigious length means it’s more equitably split between Jude and his lifelong friends Willem, JB and Malcolm. To get it down to something stageable, this version zeroes in on Jude. That’s sensible, but shifts the tone somewhat. The required cuts mean Omari Douglas’s livewire artist JB is relegated to a memorable minor character. And all we ever really learn about Zach Wyatt’s affable Malcolm is that he’s an architect – his only role in the play is to design a succession of homes for Jude.
The book’s more amiable passages – details of the men’s lives in Manhatten – are largely pruned out. And so after a gentle start, ‘A Little Life’ is a veritable atrocity exhibition, as the unspeakable awfulness of Jude’s childhood and the nauseating ramifications for his present become clear.
There are spots of light. As Jude’s actor BFF, Luke Thompon’s Willem emerges as an almost angelic figure, his puppyish decency and refusal to be scared away from Jude offering some relief in the second half. Then there’s the always excellent Zubin Varla as Jude’s former professor turned father figure Harold. He’s more agonised than Willem, and can’t banish the darkness quite so well. But his fierce decency is something else for us to hold on to, and he’s the rare father figure to not betray Jude.
It’s beautifully staged: a live string quartet provides the largely dissonant soundtrack, occasionally leavened by some sweet snippets of Mahler (James Norton sings Mahler! In German!). Jan Versweyveld’s set is nifty: a narrow strip of stage with a kitchen counter and hospital bed on one side and JB’s art studio on the other, with the visuals dominated by two huge screens showing dreamy, slowed-down camera footage of a journey through Manhattan. The adaptation – by Koen Tachelet, Van Hove and Yanagihara herself – is deftly crafted, moving forward pacily but relatively elegantly, expunging a lot of passing details of the men’s lives in favour of lucid storytelling.
To his credit, Van Hove never makes it feel pulpy or trashily exploitative, more of a meditative treatise on how life is unutterably cruel and shit. But in doing so it becomes a sort of experiment in terror, an attempt to see how an audience will react to seeing unimaginable horrors piled upon a single character with almost nothing in the way of relief. There’s some seating at the back of the stage and I wonder if its main purpose is so we can see the shocked faces of our fellow audience members' faces.
What I really wrestled with here: what is the point to its bleakness? Maybe that’s a question more meaningfully directed at the book, but the play can’t hide behind it.
Jude’s experiences are so extreme – and so cruelly inflamed by sheer bad luck – that the story doesn’t feel useful as a tale about an abuse survivor: ‘if you’ve been horribly abused then your life will be ruined with no hope of redemption’ is not much of a message.
And if it is an experiment in terror: well, that’s interesting, I guess, but again it feels icky bringing abuse victims into it.
But really I can’t help but think ‘A Little Life’ is probably essentially meaningless, a horrible story told for the thrill of telling a horrible story, its nihilism ultimately sophomoric and unserious. Brilliant acting, great direction, but at heart it’s simply an empty vision of despair.