A Little Life, the novel by Hanya Yanagihara, has become something of a cult classic but is 734 pages long. Director Ivo van Hove has achieved the remarkable feat of corralling it into four hours of theatre, honouring the poetry of the book while creating a wholly compelling piece of theatre. The stage show – as the book – should come with all the trigger warnings going. There is bad language, drug use, sex, sexual violence and abuse, self-harm and suicide in this show. But don’t let that put you off because despite it all, this a touching and beautiful story of the redemptive power of male friendship.
Willem is a wannabe actor, Jude an ace law student, JB wants to be an artist and Malcolm’s training as an architect. The young men meet as students and soon become firm friends. They share drunken nights and lazy dream-filled days, helping each other navigate loves found and loves lost, family frustrations and professional rejection. But amidst all of this, Jude’s background remains obscure. Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s production brilliantly condenses several sweeping decades of their lives together and latterly, their time apart. For fans of the book, the cast list is inevitably truncated but van Hove cleverly uses Ana, Jude’s social worker, as a narrative device.
This is a stupendous staging of a story that jumps backwards in time at the drop of a hat. Video screens on two sides of the stage show a continuous film of New York streets, scrolling silently throughout the action, a constant reminder of the sense of place that infiltrates the story, while the audience sit on the other two sides of the stage. The stage transforms seamlessly into different homes, bars and clubs, the consultation room, the site of Jude’s troubling childhood memories. There’s a real kitchen, actual meals, the smell of frying onions and later, disinfectant, wafting into the theatre with the special effects being disconcertingly real. This extends to the darker aspects too as there’s a lot of self-harm and this is unflinchingly depicted, for those that can bear to look.
Ramsey Nasr is incredible as Jude, wholeheartedly naïve and hopeful as a child before growing into an irreparably damaged adult, charismatic, charming, greedy for life but deeply hurt by his past. He won the Louis D’Or back home for his performance and justifiably so. Maarten Heijmans as Jude’s flatmate, Willem, also delivers a beautiful performance, unfurling from his out of work actor years into a celebrated international artist who will nonetheless, do anything for his best friend.
This is a gripping production that eloquently depicts the fragility, the sticky tendrils and the stubborn tenacity of friendship. Beware though, because you’ll likely fall a little bit in love with these boys.