Friday 4 August 2023

A Little Life

Savoy, London

29th July 2023, matinee


‘How hard it is to keep alive

someone who doesn't want to stay alive’


Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling and immensely popular 2015 novel A Little Life is not without its controversies. Having been accused of touting ‘torture porn’ amongst other criticisms, Yanagihara’s story is not for the faint-hearted, but is in reality, so much more than the sensationalist headlines suggest. It seems fitting that such a divisive novel has been adapted for the stage by one of theatre’s most divisive directors, Ivo van Hove. The director harnesses his signature style of heightened realism combined with some very striking imagery to create a vivid production that is (in some cases literally) an assault on the senses.

The plot focuses on four college friends as they navigate the ups and downs of life in New York City. Malcolm comes from a privileged but distant family and aspires to be a master architect, JB is a bolshy but talented painter, and Willem is a passionate, kind-hearted struggling actor. At the centre of the group lies the enigmatic Jude: a sweet natured and quiet man whose traumatic childhood haunts his adult life. Through the relationship between these friends and the other important people that come into and out of their lives, the play explores a spectrum of emotional intensity and poses the question ‘what is a life worth?’.

As a lover of the book I could mourn the loss of certain characters (Harold’s wife Julia being perhaps the most sorely missed) or rue the way certain storylines have been side-lined (Malcolm and JB are more secondary here), however van Hove, Koen Tachelet and Yanagihara have done a great job of retaining and, in some ways, enhancing the essence of the book without having to sacrifice too much of the detail. Even while clocking in at a whopping 4 hours, the creative team have condensed the 700+ page tome into a play that feels streamlined yet also has a wonderful way of allowing individual moments to breathe. This is particularly evident in van Hove’s use of music; whether it be the live string quartet that empathetically underscore the action, Jude’s quietly reflective classical singing, or the devastating moment of uninhibited joy in which Jude and Willem dance to Arcade Fire’s ‘Wake Up’.

Van Hove similarly builds an authentic relationship with the audience by peppering the stage with ‘real-life’ action. Before the play begins characters congregate on stage to cook bacon and eggs, the aroma filling the auditorium, and throughout the performance background goings-on include characters cooking appetisers and elaborate puddings, painting, reading and cleaning. This domestic realism helps us to invest in the action and makes the painful aspects of the story even more shocking. The violence on show is horrific and deeply upsetting, and that’s before even considering the gory nature of the special effects used (we had a least 2 fainters and one show-stop at the performance we attended).

While it’s easy to focus on the physical and psychological trauma on display – yes, there are gruelling scenes of sexual assault, sadism and self-harm – it’s also important to note that through the course of the evening we are also privy to the most intimate facets of the characters’ inner emotional selves; we share their happiness, grief, anger and guilt, in all their enriching and contradictory complexities. I would argue that above all, A Little Life is a story about love – platonic love, parental love, romantic love, self-love – whether it be pure, muddied or elusive, and that is what makes the novel, and now the play, so enduringly touching.

The cast bring to life Yanagihara’s characters with ease and cultivate a company-wide chemistry that is unmatched by any other show in the West End at present. Luke Thompson is instantly likeable as the affable Willem and Omari Douglas’s JB hits just the right balance between passion and petulance. The always impressive Zubin Varla gives a gravity laden and soulful performance as Jude’s adoptive father, Harold, and carries the weight of the final moments of the play with tremendous feeling, while Elliot Cowan’s portrayal of the monsters lurking in Jude’s past is every bit as chilling and hateful as you could hope for. Yet, for many James Norton’s tireless performance is the real highlight. Never off-stage, Norton plumbs the depths of every raw emotion, every animalistic instinct known to man, yet he imbues Jude with a beautiful air of gentle dignity, even during his lowest moments. I defy anyone to watch Norton in action here and remain unmoved, not least for the sheer dedication he shows to the role.

Jan Versweyveld’s set is almost a character in its own right.  Deceptively economic yet immersive, hospital beds emerge from the wells, a fully working kitchen acts as a hub for the action, and Versweyveld’s video projections provide a fascinating insight into Jude’s psyche. Playing constantly throughout the performance, seamless video tours through the streets of NYC subtly speed up, slow down, lose and gain colour, and crackle with static depending on the Jude’s state of mind. While it could be argued that van Hove can perhaps be over-reliant on video in his previous ventures, I felt that here it is entirely justified without ever becoming a distraction.

When this production was first announced I had my doubts about whether an adaptation would be able to do justice to Yanagihara’s extraordinary novel. However, these doubts have been completely quashed after seeing the show. I laughed, I raged, I winced, I cried (and cried, and cried) and I am still thinking about what I watched nearly a week later. A lot of care and attention has been poured into this production and it deserves every success that comes its way.


A Little Life plays at the Savoy Theatre until 5th August, followed by a nation-wide cinema screening on 28th September 2023.

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Zach Wyatt, Luke Thompson and James Norton
in A Little Life. 
Credit: Jan Versweyveld

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