First published in The Times, Monday August 22 2022
The Belgian theatre director Ivo van Hove is renowned for his stark, uncompromising productions of classic plays, from Greek to Renaissance tragedies and, memorably, works by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. His latest project is an adaptation of a more recent literary phenomenon, A Little Life by the American novelist Hanya Yanagihara, which was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2015.
This production, which is in Edinburgh for a brief run as part of the international festival, may seem an unusual endeavour for the director. In fact, Yanagihara’s doorstep of a tome about a New York lawyer, Jude, whose staggeringly troubled upbringing eats away at his adult life, is tailor-made for van Hove, who often strips down emotionally wrought drama to its raw essentials.
His adaptation is remarkably faithful to its source, which will doubtless please the book’s many admirers. Having made it through 720 pages of Yanagihara’s novel, fans in the audience now have more than four hours in which to wallow in her protagonist’s suffering. Jude’s tragic story is horribly compelling, but to what end?
The action comes together slowly. Initially, we are in a buddy story, in which college friends Willem, Malcolm, JB and Jude, build careers in the Big Apple, though there are few indicators of period setting, and, aside from Jude, the characters are never fleshed out beyond what they do for a living. This lack of context is matched by Jan Versweyfeld’s design, a scattering of generic items from some minimalist dwelling, which are blandly framed by screens showing New York scenes.
Gradually, Jude (played by Ramsey Nasr), who is fragile, secretive, prickly, but a brilliant lawyer, mathematician, and singer, comes into focus as the protagonist and the object of his friends’ devoted concern. Through the play’s many flashbacks we bear witness to the abuse inflicted on the child Jude, including being groomed, raped, and loaned out for sex by one of the brothers at the religious order where he grew up. Violence follows him into adulthood. He self-harms, embarks on a relationship with a sadistic partner, and attempts suicide.
Nasr is fully committed to his role, but the performance is in the service of deeply suspect material and a character who never rises above the level of cipher. The aim of van Hove’s painfully drawn-out, surprisingly stilted production is to show how people live with pain and trauma. There is a big difference between exploring, as Beckett does, lyrically and with humour, the ways we find to go on, and relentlessly punishing a character for our viewing pleasure.
To Aug 22. Eif.co.uk