Since its publication in 2015, Hanya Yanagihara’s unflinchingly profound novel A Little Life has continued to grip readers. It is no surprise, then, that Ivo Van Hove’s West End adaption, shown at the intimate Harold Pinter Theatre in London, has received mixed reviews. On October 1st, York’s City Screen cinema showed a recording of the play, and as a huge fan of the book, I went along to watch.
The story follows four friends – JB (Omari Douglas), Malcom (Zach Wyatt), Willem (Luke Thompson), and Jude (James Norton) – trying to carve out their careers and personal lives in New York City. The novel centres around the other characters’ relationship to Jude, who’s abusive childhood Yanagihara reveals in increments throughout the novel. Orphaned as a child and taken in by a monastic community, Jude is then groomed for several years by Brother Luke (Elliot Cowan). Escaping at 15, he then falls into the hands of a sadistic doctor (also played by Cowan). The story shifts between Jude’s present and his past. It depicts an extreme conflict between his current life, that of a successful lawyer with a loving group of friends, and that of his youth – this is a conflict he cannot escape. Norton’s performance is astonishingly powerful throughout the vicious cycle of Jude’s torment, if perhaps let down by the limited range the play gave his character, which is not in accordance with the novel.
As an admirer of the book, I can recognise that there are unavoidable issues in converting a story such as this into visual media, and that Van Hove was unfortunately unable to surpass in his adaptation for stage. The almost four hour long play did manage to cover the main elements of Jude’s traumatic life, but gave us only small glimpses into the friendships between the characters. This was done particularly well by Zubin Varla, who movingly brought to life Jude’s adopted father Harold. Yet, it was unable to provide the audience with any respite from the relentless trauma displayed. Malcolm and JB, central figures in the novel, were reduced to the periphery, albeit deftly played by their actors, and the inner life and personalities of both Jude and Willem are rarely to be glimpsed.
Without the 700 page narrative of the book, which gradually interspersed descriptions of Jude’s mental suffering with heart-warming interactions and academic debate between characters, the play became a never-ending reel of pain and physical and emotional suffering. The story became less textured and instead focused on abuse and its legacy. The audience can relate to Jude in that the sentiment of wanting it all to stop is perhaps the strongest one felt during the four hour run time. Perhaps that was both the director’s and Yanagihara’s aim, in which case – bravo!
In its omission of the moments of joy and care that life does offer up, it would be true to say that the play gives a relatively false representation of how the book deals with the complexity of real life trauma. Nevertheless, the calibre of the eight-strong cast made up for some of the short-comings that the brevity of stage adaptations inevitably produce.