There’s light at the end of the tunnel that’s Ivo van Hovestage adaptation of A little life. But it’s a very long tunnel.
For some, the idea of a four-hour adaptation of the critically acclaimed 736-page novel is artistic sadism reserved for the most hardened theatergoers. Make its UK premiere at Edinburgh International Festival, it’s the kind of room you’d expect someone to see just so they can proudly proclaim they’ve been through it. This is especially the case when all the horror of Yanagihara’s novel is rendered in its entirety unshakeable by Van Hove and Amsterdam International Theater. It’s also in Dutch with English surtitles. And it lasts more than four hours.
Despite these obstacles, Van Hove creates something brutally essential as a work of art. He’s incredibly careful with what he does and doesn’t show. There are graphic and gory depictions of gruesome self-harm, trauma and child sexual abuse. Koen TacheletThe adaptation of is composed of both third-person narration and soliloquies. The effect is huge. It’s realism but not realistic: the force of scenic pain is palpable but without gratuitousness or shock to divert attention from the rawness of the emotional topography. There is always a critical distance between us and pain.
For those wondering why A little life deserves a stage adaptation, which is why. Van Hove demands that his audience see and recognize the trauma up close, questioning what it means to be a spectator of violence in the 21st century.
It is no coincidence that there are spectators seated on both sides of the stage: we see each other, we see each other. We are aware of the very dialectic that we create as spectators: to see, to recognize, to know each other. We testify as human beings. The pain of violence we face in our lives is mitigated by the screens that mediate it. But here we are not passive entities fed on pixelated images, we are present and alive, something only theater as a medium could achieve.
Acknowledging one’s own trauma and the trauma of others is a central theme of A little life. Main character Jude’s refusal to deal with his fractured psyche can only be revealed in his horror when others, especially his friend-turned-lover Wilhelm, can see and recognize him. The story of his trauma is played out with his social worker as a witness. We watch someone else watch, understanding what it is like to witness such horror.
Wickedness also gives rise to light which is magnified in darkness. Harold, Jude’s adoptive father, and Willems’ unrequited love is beautifully accentuated in contrast to the searing pain. Some will not be able to overcome the gore. But we must not hesitate; it is necessary to see violence without the pain or the threat so that we can recognize what it really means.
Art does just that and Van Hove and Yanagihara know it: Jude’s psyche begins to crumble when he sees a portrait of himself painted by his roommate JB depicting him in an emotionally vulnerable state. It suddenly allows him to see beyond the physical and transcend the immediacy of his reality. Art shows him its truth. Art shows us our truth.
A review for A little life can’t ignore Ramsey Nasr who delivers a jaw-dropping marathon of a performance as Jude. Capturing his palimpsestic trauma and the corporeality of Jude’s chronic pain is a true feat of performance; it’s no surprise that he won the prestigious Louis d’Or for the role in 2019. Hans Kesting, another critically acclaimed and award-winning Dutch actor, multi-rolling as each of Jude’s executioners is a creative choice that’s as inspired as it is horrifying to behold. His presence merges into an indescribably haunting symbol of torment.
So while the light is at the end of a very long tunnel, the light is still visible.
A Little Life plays as part of the Edinburgh International Festival until August 22
Photo credit: Jessica Shurte