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A Little Life at the Harold Pinter Theatre

A Little Life is one of those plays for which ‘did you enjoy it?’ feels the wrong question. It is also one so well staged it makes me ask why we go to the theatre in the first place. But answering whether this production is good is a far harder task than I might wish for.

Luke Thompson (Willem), James Norton (Jude). Photo by Jan Versweyveld.
Luke Thompson (Willem), James Norton (Jude). Photo by Jan Versweyveld.

Jude St Francis (James Norton) is a successful lawyer, and friends since college with actor Willem (Luke Thompson), artist JB (Omari Douglas) and architect Malcolm (Zach Wyatt). This is all we know about him, including how he ends up the son of law professor Harold (Zubin Varla), but wasn’t always. Where Jude came from, and everything up to the age of fifteen, is as much of a mystery to his friends as to the audience. “I sometimes think he’s a magician, and his sole trick is concealment,” Willem declares.

The staging is understated theatrical brilliance. As the audience enters, the four friends mooch around the apartment where most of the action takes place. They cook, taste, play music, smoke, and laugh. Onto the side walls of Jan Versweyveld’s remarkable stripped-back set are projected videos of New York street scenes, locating us throughout the show and becoming grainy in sympathy with Jude’s falling mood. Behind are three rows of (no doubt highly sought after) on-stage seating: just like Jude’s friends, the audience cannot escape what unfolds. What unfolds is a gradual reveal of Jude’s childhood of horrific physical, sexual and emotional abuse, shaping his experience into adulthood.

Ivo van Hove’s spellbinding direction sees Jude’s past invading the present day. We never get a chance to settle into glimpses of joy. The ominous presences of Brother Luke, Dr Traylor, and Caleb (all played by Elliot Cowan) lurk, horrors emerging without warning. This makes for a gruelling, unremitting three-and-a-half-hour watch. The action is raw; the portrayal of self-harm is bloody; Jude’s inability to escape his situation is brutal. It is an indisputably powerful production. Norton’s performance sparkles with disturbing ambiguity and is rightly sure to win awards.

After initial rave reviews on publication in 2015 (and a slew of award nominations), the novel has been reevaluated by some later critics. It continues to have a devoted following (the play booked up quickly, and an extended run at the Savoy Theatre is selling fast), but some of the noted problems are amplified on stage. Of course, I go to the theatre to feel – it is through emotion that drama evokes in us what it is to be human. Not all reactions are created equal, however. A horror film’s cheap frights, for example, are not the same as a subtler exploration of deeper psychological fears. Does A Little Life truly transcend being misery porn or does it wallow in an unrealistic portrayal of unimaginable pain?

It frustrates me that while Jude has changed his circumstances far more radically than most real victims of childhood abuse are able to, the writers won’t let him catch a break. When Jude finally opens up, it delivers none of the redemption he’s been promised. A pledge he’ll seek professional help is forgotten as soon as he makes it. When Jude admits to never having enjoyed sex as an adult, yet says he’s happy to let his lover do whatever he wants, it reveals a chilling blindspot… but none of his friends help raise his awareness either.

The hands of the playwrights (van Hove, Koen Tachelet, and the novellist, Hanya Yanagihara) intervene in the action frequently, even happy to speak, heavy-handedly, through their characters. In a nuanced moment when Jude insists his childhood abuser, Brother Luke, loved and protected him, Willem has none of it: the man was a cruel paedophile and Jude is wrong. (It’s a pattern, that those who hurt Jude speak softly, whereas his friends can only shout, or physically restrain him. I’d hope a play set in the New York queer scene could find different models of masculinity to portray, but apparently not here.) The final twist is an obvious deus ex machina that surely felt clichéd the very first time it was used. It confirms the play’s bleak manifesto, with no dramatic import except to layer cruelty upon cruelty.

Compromises are inevitable when adapting a seven-hundred-page novel into even a longer stage play. Sadly, all light relief appears to have been one of those sacrifices. Another: his friends complain about Jude’s refusal to talk about himself, but the treatment of their own lives is paper-thin. Despite the story supposedly focusing on male relationships (without a single living female character), each friend effortlessly becomes successful, off-stage, with only the most superficial impact on their friendships or personal development. Only Harold is three-dimensionally drawn and yet after adopting Jude, aged 27 (which surely should be seminal for them both), his character is largely forgotten.

I have no doubt that many audience members, especially those familiar with the book, will love this production. I presume the woman in the on-stage seating, who sobbed from midway through the first half until the curtain call, experienced exactly the release she was hoping for. I’m not going to call those who enjoy the show masochists for the simple terminological reason that we have a different name for revelling in someone else’s suffering. We call that ‘sadism’. Is coyness behind fans’ insistence that it is they who are ‘wrecked’ by reading the book, when it is Jude who is endlessly degraded? The play is an undeniable masterpiece as an unflinching depiction of immense suffering, and if that is what you go to the theatre for, van Hove delivers an astonishing feat. For all its theatrical power, however, I’m unconvinced A Little Life offers more than crude emotional manipulation, leaving me acutely upset rather than moved, and none the wiser about the human condition.

3 Star Review

Review by Ben Ross

A LITTLE LIFE follows four college friends in New York City: aspiring actor Willem, successful architect Malcolm, struggling artist JB, and prodigious lawyer Jude.

As ambition, addiction, and pride threaten to pull the group apart, they always find themselves bound by their love for Jude and the mysteries of his past.

But when those secrets come to light, they finally learn that to know Jude St Francis is to understand the limitless potential of love in the face of life.

A LITTLE LIFE
Based on the novel by Hanya Yanagihara
Adapted by Koen Tachelet, Ivo van Hove and Hanya Yanagihara
Cast: James Norton, Luke Thompson, Omari Douglas, Zach Wyatt, Elliot Cowan, Zubin Varla, Nathalie Armin, Emilio Doorgasingh
Conceived and Directed by: Ivo van Hove; Set & Lighting Design: Jan Versweyveld;
Costume Design: An D’Huys; Music & Sound Designer: Eric Sleichim;
Casting Director: Julia Horan CDG
Harold Pinter Theatre – 25 March to 18 June 2023

Buy Tickets

A Little Life – Savoy Theatre Tickets
Savoy Theatre, London
4 Jul 2023 – 5 Aug 2023
3h 40m (incl. 1 interval)

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