Page to Stage: A Little Life

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Waiting at the door of the Harold Pinter theatre, our phone cameras covered with obligatory round stickers, a well-meaning usher tells the 20-something in front of us to enjoy the show.  

His response? 

“Unlikely.” 

Anyone familiar with the play’s source material- the 800-page novel by Hanya Yanagihara- would enter with the same grim expectation. Renowned for its unflinchingly raw, difficult rendering of the life of Jude St Francis, a New York lawyer who suffers chronic pain from years of horrific childhood abuse, the novel was praised for its sensitivity by some and condemned as voyeuristic and gratuitous by others. With initial press describing walkouts over the graphic portrayal of sexual abuse and self-harm, the play opened to a similarly controversial reception.  

Anyone familiar with the play’s source material- the 800-page novel by Hanya Yanagihara- would enter with the same grim expectation

Having finished the novel a week before our tickets for the show, its most graphic moments were fresh in my mind. It is a hard book to read. While I disagree with accusations of gratuity, the misery in this book is relentless. Jude St Francis remains one of the most afflicted characters in recent fiction. And while the abuse portrayed is much darker, and more recurrent, than most of us will have encountered, the constant struggle from surrounding characters to wrench Jude out of this darkness, his resistance borne from difficulty they cannot defeat, or even fathom, is a familiar feeling to anyone close to an addict or victim of trauma, and it is painful. But it is also what makes the novel so moving- despite the centrality of Jude’s abuse, it is a book that runs on the profound persistence of love from the people who surround him. My hope was that the play would capture this same strength and tenderness that stitches the novel together. 

The play’s setting is Jude’s Lipsenard Street apartment, shared with college friend Willem (an instantly likeable, breezy Luke Thompson), introduced along with gregarious artist JB (Omari Douglas, flitting between buoyant and acerbic) and architect Malcom (Zach Wyatt, bringing brash enthusiasm to the more reserved book character). Other characters include Harold, Jude’s law mentor and, later, adoptive father, and Andy, his private doctor. Character casualties from the inevitable shearing of the novel include Julia, Jude’s adoptive mother, and Richard, a friend and the owner of Jude’s Greene Street apartment. While the play’s progression is tightly bound with Jude, other characters have moments of confidence with the audience, and will often remain onstage, working silently in parallel to Jude’s central story.  

Norton’s performance as Jude has been universally lauded, and he is indeed remarkable here, not only in his outbursts of pain and self-hatred, but in his constant, quieter vulnerability. His portrayal of Jude’s boyhood self, with moments from childhood enacted as memories onstage, is sensitive and convincing, and the childlike undercurrent of his performance of the adult Jude too, both in his gentle tone and his petulant rejection of help from friends and family, captures the subtly regressive behaviour of those traumatised in childhood.  

Also to be highly praised is Elliot Cowan, multi-rolling as all the poisonous men in Jude’s life. Each is uniquely, distinctly characterised: from the creepily tender, paternal Brother Luke to the swaggering Caleb, to the odd, unpredictable Doctor Traylor. And each haunts the play in an equally chilling sense: A birthday scene for Jude, Harold on one side, oblivious and affectionate, cutting cake, and the memory of Brother Luke, grooming a young Jude and disguising it as love, on the other, is a heartbreaking reminder of the difficulty in separating good, earnest people and their intentions from previous traumatic experiences. 

The necessary shaving down of the novel’s characters and contexts makes the play’s lens even more sharply focussed on Jude’s abuse

The necessary shaving down of the novel’s characters and contexts makes the play’s lens even more sharply focussed on Jude’s abuse. And while instances of abuse and particularly self-harm were graphically portrayed, the play was careful to avoid slipping into gratuity or spectacle. The goriness of Jude’s cutting felt justified by the attention in Norton’s performance to its dual sense of desperation and precise ritualism.  The sexual abuse displayed was disturbing, but here the emphasis was on Jude’s emotional experience, his panic or his numbness, rather than painstaking realism. The only character whose role is not diminished in favour of this foregrounding of abuse, but rather bolstered, is Jude’s social worker Ana, the only female presence in the play. A character whose presence in the book virtually ends with her death before Jude goes to college, Ana instead becomes a frequent presence during moments of peril and moments of healing for Jude, sometimes embodying his conscience, sometimes giving warnings, sometimes providing comfort. While her company, however abstract, offsets the loneliness of Jude’s suffering, at times it became superfluous. Her warnings to Jude as Caleb’s emotional abuse intensifies, for example, felt adequately conveyed through the strained, panicked strings of the live orchestra. Van Hove’s musical choices are eclectic, but for the most part, well chosen. Jude and Willem’s first kiss, soundtracked by a Nine Inch Nails song, unexpectedly works. But the play is most effective in its quieter moments. As the play reaches its close, Norton’s silent presence onstage, slumped and still in his wheelchair, set against the tick of passing time, encapsulates the empty-gut feeling of grief, and lingers.  

Despite being solid overall, other elements of the performance didn’t quite hit the right mark

Despite being solid overall, other elements of the performance didn’t quite hit the right mark. Zubin Varla’s Harold, although undeniably a commanding presence, had a showman-esque quality which could occasionally detract from the sincerity of his monologues. Other characters, inevitably, felt underused; in particular, the glossing over of Willem’s promiscuity, as well as his relationship with his disabled brother, Hemming, made the character feel more shallowly constructed. So too did elements of the characters’ lives outside of Lipsenard Street. JB’s paintings of the four friends, such an integral part of his character, and key to tracking the dynamics of the friends over the plot’s course, were, frankly, underwhelming, and left me wondering if they could have been presented in a way that felt less literal, given that Van Hove was not shackled to strict realism. Aside from his white shirt, which becomes an increasingly bloodied externalisation of his abuse, Jude’s career, first at the US Attorney’s Office and later at the corporate form Rosen-Pritchard, takes a relative backseat, despite the other members of the quartet frequently engaged in their own work at the stage’s periphery. And while these tableaus of relative normalcy drive home their ignorance of Jude’s manifest abuse, the opportunity to demonstrate the authority and control Jude himself reclaims as a revered and often ruthless defence lawyer is unfortunately lost. 

So, did the prediction that the play was ‘unlikely’ to be enjoyed ring true? In a sense, yes. Having read the book was not adequate protection from the misery of the play, as was easy to gauge from the mascara running down my face. My mum, having not read the book, was equally a mess- my leaning over every so often to whisper “It gets worse.” was no help. But when the lights came up, it was apparent that almost everyone in the theatre had been crying too, and despite the harrowing contents of the play, I found the unlikely optimism of the novel reinforced. At a time of increasing disconnect, to be surrounded by such empathy makes one feel less alone. 

Image Credit: Jan Versweyveld

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