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6 April 2023

A Little Life is absurdly, tediously, pointlessly bleak

This four-hour self-harm horror-show is schadenfreude dressed up as empathy.

By Katherine Cowles

What do I feel watching Ivo van Hove’s stage adaptation of A Little Life? Boredom? Fatigue? A sudden affinity with those poor Facebook moderators, trapped in a windowless room for hours trawling through images of the very worst of human suffering: rape, torture, child abuse, self-harm? After the end of a hard night’s entertainment – the play is three hours and 40 minutes long – I stumble numb into the Soho streets, watch the merry couples enjoy their drinks and McDonald’s meals. They don’t know what horrors I’ve seen. I close my weary eyes and feel… nothing.

Forgive me. My job is to describe with a level of accuracy the play I have just seen, but my brain seems already to be repressing the grim memories. When our hero sets fire to his arm in the kitchen sink. When he self-mutilates, again and again, so convincingly. By the third self-harm sequence, the blood drips like sand in a 220-minute hourglass before me. Oh the hashing and rehashing! Oh the blood, and the bloodthirstiness of the thing.

In the audience, there were gasps and many drained faces. But I saw very few tears for such a heart-rending story, except maybe those of the A Little Life devotees. After all, Hanya Yanagihara’s word-of-mouth bestseller – from which this play is faithfully adapted – was as much loved as it was pilloried: celebrated as a rich character study that tells a small story on an epic scale; as a touching depiction of gay love with a subversive, godless tendency.

The play follows four university friends – a lawyer, an actor, an architect, an artist – living in New York. Eventually, three are relegated to (emotional) support roles as the elusive lawyer takes centre stage: Jude St Francis (James Norton), named for the patron saint of “hopeless causes”, which is to put it kindly. Abandoned at birth, he is sexually abused by the monks who take him in, pimped out by a priest (show clients “a little life”, he’s instructed), tortured by a psychiatrist, and hospitalised by a violent boyfriend. There is a scene involving a car (in fact, two of them) that is so absurdly bleak it is almost cartoonish, like something from a road-rage video game.

The cast is the saving grace, in particular Norton, who plays Jude with tremendous stamina and bravery – and I don’t just mean the bit where he gets naked. He is built like a punching bag, big but deflated, his limp (from that car crash, remember) perfectly executed. He comes alive when he plays Jude as a child, his malleable face wincing and wrinkling with its dark lines, deep as scars. He is a special actor, so deserving of his standing ovation, and a versatile one – to think he was that Happy Valley psycho with the man-bun!

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[See also: Dom: The Play, review: nowhere near as clever as it thinks it is]

Luke Thompson is convincing as Jude’s doting partner, and I wish more was made of Omari Douglas’s hysterical, spiky JB. They do their best to be more than enablers of the plot, which is what the story renders them, and make full and easy use of the space, which – for so melodramatic a play – is brilliantly minimalist, but for the crimson plastic carpet spilling out like a pool of, yes, you guessed it. On the side walls slow-motion clips of New York avenues provide a backdrop for the livelier scenes, turning to static at moments of distress, and pink in relief.

I would be worried about spoilers, but I’m not sure it’s possible to “spoil” so macabre an evening any more than it’s possible to spoil a funeral: there are no prizes for guessing the ending, and frankly there’s not much fun to ruin. Besides, there are trigger warnings before you even enter the theatre (the Harold Pinter, West End) that give a gloomy glimpse into the proceedings: “physical and emotional abuse… will be portrayed realistically and emotively which some viewers may find disturbing”. You think?

I doubt those who spent up to £175 per ticket will be put off by these omens if the 750-page book that inspired them didn’t do it. Some audience members are hemmed even closer into the action in the immersive on-stage seating, which creates an impression of intimacy and voyeurism, but also serves to emphasise the problem with this gruelling adaptation: we are held captive. Unlike with a book, we cannot look up from the horror or walk away. If this were television, I would have switched off at the ad-break. Told in this form, A Little Life feels like a litany of grief – relentless, to the point of tedium.

Who is this play for exactly? Are you a bad person if you enjoy it? A sociopath if you feel nothing? We watched a man gradually cut himself to death – and for what? A glimpse at James Norton’s naked body? People talk excitedly about “trauma porn”, how Yanagihara’s novel exemplifies the genre and our appetite for suffering vicariously. On stage, A Little Life is a trauma striptease: enticingly, it peels away layers of backstory to reveal something recognisably human and fleshy, but in the end, not much is left to the imagination. All is transparent, even the most opaque psychology. Ultimately, this is schadenfreude dressed up as empathy.

Unfortunately, it’s working: the show is sold out until July. I’m sure, for some patrons, it will linger in the mind long after then. But though there is a little life in this play – and its performances – the high price to pay is a whole lot of misery.

[See also: The magical realism of My Neighbour Totoro]

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