Theatre review: A Little Life, Adelaide Festival

Based on Yanagihara's best-selling novel, this production does not flinch in its portrayal of cruelty and abuse.

Belgian stage director Ivo van Hove works across Europe, the UK and the US with companies like the Young Vic and the Comédie-Française, as well as on Broadway. His primary artistic home and creative laboratory, however, is the Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (formerly the Toneelgroep), where he’s been Artistic Director since 2001. 

A Little Life is based on Japanese-American author Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel about a group of male friends in New York City. The narrative slowly tightens its focus on the central figure, Jude, and gradually reveals itself to be about childhood sexual abuse and trauma, ongoing physical and emotional abuse, chronic pain and disability, self-harm and suicide (the list of trigger warnings outside the theatre was probably the most comprehensive I’ve ever seen).

Van Hove and his creative team have transformed Yanagihara’s 800-page chronicle into a four-hour work of ‘slow theatre’ (with one interval). However, in contrast to the deliberately measured tone of the novel, van Hove’s production is much more confronting and brutal.

The audience is seated on either side of a traverse stage, with video screens at either end showing slow-motion footage of New York City streets. This is occasionally tinted by a pink filter or pixelated to become visually static during the later scenes of abuse or self-harm, which all occur centre stage. 

A live string quartet sits below the stage on one side of the traverse and plays various pieces during transitions between scenes – most notably a repeated version of the slow introduction to Mozart’s ‘Dissonance Quartet’. Music and sound is also conveyed through speakers placed around the theatre; and the actor-characters also play records on a stereo, which is positioned on the opposite side of the traverse and forms part of the furniture in the apartment shared by Jude and his friend (and later lover) Willem. 

The dialogue is in Dutch, and the actors all use body-mics, but surtitles in English are projected on either side of an inverted structure that hangs suspended over the stage and contains the lighting grid. This structure also plays a spectacular role in a typically van Hovean coup de théâtre at the climax of the play.

Like Yanagihara’s novel, van Hove’s production gradually turns up the heat, until what initially appears to be a generic story about a group of post-college friends becomes a slow-burning spectacle of carnage. In fact, the cast spend much of their time either preparing and cooking food on a functioning stovetop at one end of the stage, or cleaning up the stage blood that’s been visibly released from plastic bags taped to Jude’s body and dripped or leaked onto the floor during the scenes of self-harm or abuse.

All of this is embodied with a paradoxical sense of lightness and ease by the uniformly accomplished ensemble cast. Dutch-Palestinian actor Ramsey Nasr gives a carefully measured and distilled performance as Jude, Hans Kesting is monstrously convincingly in his serial incarnation of Jude’s abusers and Marieke Heebink calmly haunts the stage as Jude’s dead social worker Ana – who in this adaptation is the only female character in the story. 

Read: Adelaide Festival review: Escolania de Montserrat and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde

Beyond the consolations of love or piety, van Hove’s theatre of cruelty exposes us to what may be called our shared inhumanity, which no amount of sacrificial blood can wash away. Acknowledgements and reparations are all very well, van Hove seems to be saying; but the cycle of abuse and trauma, rinse and repeat, also has to stop.

A Little Life
Directed by Ivo van Hove
Based on the novel by Hanya Yanagihara

Internationaal Theater Amsterdam
Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre

Performers: Ramsey Nasr, Maarten Heijmans, Majd Mardo, Edwin Jonker, Hans Kesting, Marieke Heebink, Steven Van Watermeulen and Bart Slegers

A Little Life was performed from 3-8 March 2023 as part of Adelaide Festival.

Wolfgang von Flügelhorn is a writer and critic based in Perth.