Mark Shenton in the West End
6 April 2023
There’s nothing little about the huge emotional intensity of Ivo van Hove’s visceral and eviscerating production that adapts Hanya Yanagihara’s epic 2015 novel A Little Life about the effects of long-term childhood sexual abuse for the stage. The story focuses on four male friends from college who have moved to New York City to pursue their different careers. Previously seen in the UK at last year’s Edinburgh International Festival, when van Hove’s Internationaal Theater Amsterdam brought its 2018 Dutch-language premiere here, the same production is now performed for the first time in English by a close-knit ensemble of British actors.
James Norton, Omari Douglas, Zach Wyatt.
Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld.
As someone who has, for the last three years, sat in the rooms of a 12-step fellowship that deals with the impact of family trauma on our lives, I have heard these sorts of stories first hand, in real life. We all have our own stories, and for a time I wondered whether I even belonged there or was entitled to tell mine, as it seemed less “bad” than others I heard. But as I sat reeling, all over again as I had in Edinburgh, at the deep physical and emotional scars inflicted on lead character Jude, and the protective shield that his group of friends and mentors try to throw around him, I realized the universality of this extreme story lies in exactly what many of us in the rooms seek to achieve: to throw off the veil of denial about what has happened to us, and somehow – as Jude is constantly being reminded – accept that it was not our fault; that we are not to blame for it.
Yet Jude, as we are all in danger of doing, continues to act out his desperate self-harming strategies, in his case inflicting physical cutting upon his body, and denying himself the chance of receiving physical love and affection. It is, of course, entirely understandable why he distrusts it so, but as his friend Willem, in particular, tries to break through his armour to reach him, we come to bear powerful witness to the massive and seemingly irretrievable losses of childhood trust and self-esteem that have brought him here. Van Hove, who conceived as well as directs the production, also adapts it with Koen Tachelet and the original novelist, and the effect is at once raw, churning, and spellbinding.
Zach Wyatt, Luke Thompson and James Norton.
Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld.
Some might choose to dismiss A Little Life as a kind of trauma porn. But speaking from my own point of view – even if my story was a lot less severe – it feels utterly real and authentic. Van Hove’s production brings an aching, documentary-like realism to it – the self-harming episodes are particularly difficult to watch – but there’s also a wonderfully affirmative tenderness to it, too. In the midst of it all, Jude is now surrounded by kindness, as various friends seek to rescue him.
It certainly helps that the seemingly helpless Jude is played by rising star James Norton: who wouldn’t want to rescue him? Norton brings a shattering vulnerability to the stage that makes your heart break; his total conviction and commitment to the role see him exposing himself in every possible way, including extensive scenes in which he appears naked. (There was a terrible breach of the norms of what this entails when a theatregoer took illicit photographs of him and the Daily Mail published them online in a further disgusting lack of respect: a kind of perpetuation of the very abuse that the character himself suffers.)
But then this is a play that compels everyone onstage to strip emotional layers and reveal themselves fully, if not always physically; there’s wonderful work, too, from Luke Thompson, Omari Douglas, Zach Wyatt, and Zubin Varla as Jude’s friends and protectors, while Elliot Cowan is the sinister monk who abuses him, and Nathalie Armin is the psychiatrist Ana who tries to help him face his past harms.
The production is long (three hours and 40 minutes) and very demanding on the actors as well as the audience, some of whom are placed onstage with the actors, so there’s nowhere for anyone to hide. Van Hove’s partner and principal collaborator Jan Versweyveld provides the set, lighting, and video design (with slow-motion scenes from deserted Manhattan streets filling screens on either side of the stage) that further heightens a sense of overpowering claustrophobia that makes the action all too plausible.
A Little Life is a big play that is a must-see.