14 March 2023
A LITTLE LIFE (Richmond Theatre) Review
Cards on the table: a friend saw and loathed the Dutch version of this production that van Hove brought to New York a few months back. At first I thought I might give this English version a miss as a result, but having James Norton in the lead swayed me, having seen and liked him in “The Understudy“, so I picked up a ticket for the first preview in Richmond and an on-stage seat to boot. Not bragging, just sayin’ 🙂
I shall try to not give away any spoilers in the review, but it is important to know the basics when going into this show, else you’re in for a very rude awakening. The overall tagline is that this is a story of Jude, his best friend (Willem), and their two other friends (JB and Malcolm), supplemented by a few additional characters who cross Jude’s path. Jude has a bit of a past they don’t really know about, and it all unfolds as a combination of straight timeline and flashbacks over the course of the play. It’s also worth saying that it’s impossible to review this show without separating the acting from the play/book itself, otherwise neither is getting a fair shake. This is a complex production, and it took ages to get this review out.
I opted not to read Hanya Yanagihara’s novel (even after it was shortlisted for the 2015 Booker Prize) because my reading list, as well the count of miscellaneous unread books at home, is massive, and I’m going to want to get through every last one of those long before I get tempted into reading a 750-page book about years of horrific abuse and inability to cope with it. I say that not because I’m squeamish, but because I don’t need to read a tome to know that there are deeply damaged people in the world, as are people capable of unconditional love, as are people who, given a chance, are all too happy to cause unspeakable harm to others.
First and foremost, the quality of acting is top notch. This is probably one of the best-acted shows I’ve seen in a long time; it’s on-par with “Lieutenant of Inishmore” and the original cast of “The Lehman Trilogy”.
James Norton is out of this world. His is a gruelling role that demands a lot both mentally and physically (not the least of which is running around the stage starkers for a good chunk of the play). I’ll have a few things to say about Jude as a character in a minute, but my emotional investment was in Norton, not Jude, and I mean that in a very complimentary sense. Jude is a caricature of a person (again, stay tuned!), and it’s Norton’s acting that gives Jude all the sympathetic attributes the script lacks. The best way to describe Norton here is to call him fluid. His whole whole face and body change scene to scene… He speaks softly and quietly, but he doesn’t mumble. When he laughs, it genuinely lights up the room. He is stuck with an impossible character, but he makes the most of it and is an absolute joy to watch.
Luke Thomspon is also very good and was my second favourite of the night. His Willem is infinitely more sympathetic than Jude, and it’s Willem I felt sorry for by the end of the show. Thompson imbues him with a touch of sadness that’s not in your face, but just ever so subtly there, and that helps it compensate for the script. In the scene where Jude and Willem have a big fight (not saying more to avoid spoilers), I knew exactly what Willem was going to do because the argument is set up a certain way, but the expression on Thompson’s face somehow helped make his actions surprising and unexpected. I am going to try to see more of him on stage, as I’m definitely his fan now.
Omari Douglas and Zach Wyatt, as Jude’s friends JB and Malcom, respectively, are essentially plot devices. You can’t write them out of the play because you wouldn’t have lots of people around to love Jude, but they are just cardboard cutouts. There is no character development for either of these characters, and so both actors are wasted a bit here. The same is also true of Zubin Varla, who plays Harold (Jude’s friend and mentor). It’s clear why he’s there, but there is nowhere for him to go. He does have a bit of a monologue at the end, but it doesn’t make up for Harold being little more than a prop. Emilio Doorgasingh and Nathalie Armin (as Jude’s doctor-cum-friend Andy and social worker Ana, respectively) have roles with a lot of emotion, and they play them in a very genuine manner, which helps lift some of the heavier scenes. Lastly, Elliot Cowan plays 3 separate characters and changes his demeanour sufficiently well to avoid any confusion, so that the audience always know who he is at any given time.
The production itself… it doesn’t scream “van Hove”, which is nice, as he can be a bit samey. The staging is creative, although some of the sightlines are seriously ridiculous. There was a woman sat on stage in the front row, stage-left, who had a lamp and a model building right in front of her, and she kept shifting to look on either side of her. Little things like that. The stage has a functional “stove top” (or a hotplate, perhaps), so there is some cooking going on. If I hadn’t seen “Seared” a few years back, it would’ve been far more impressive because here, unlike there, it feels like a prop so that actors have something to do to pass the time instead of simply being offstage. The sides of the set each have a projection of New York City that’s slowly moving, as if someone is walking down the street with a camera, but we’re watching the video at 1/10 of the speed. Because it’s crawling so slowly, it doesn’t pull the eye away from the action much, but it is unnecessary movement. When the play was originally staged in Dutch, I can see how having this would remind the audience that they’re in New York. In English though? I reckon having static images would’ve given the same reminder without occasionally competing with the play. There is also a small matter of the examination table. Jude has scars on his back. When he lays down on the exam table, they stick to it a bit and end up looking tatty and messy when he gets up. Using paper like they do in hospitals seems wasteful, but, without, all that fine makeup work is destroyed for no reason. I wonder if van Hove should coat that table with some non-stick spray…
In general, I’m a fan of van Hove, a few misses notwithstanding. Here, however, I think his two biggest failings are not making up for the gaps in the text (be that Yanagihara’s book or Koen Tachelet’s adaptation) and having waaaaay too much gratuitous nudity. Let me give you an example of the former that absolutely infuriated me. Jude spends a lot of time talking about all the incurable STDs (STIs for the Brits) he has. OK, sure. Then he ends up having sex with someone he is supposed to care about (and who he knows cares about him a lot). They both get naked, hop into bed, and have sex. It’s not implied, but literally acted out beginning to end in front of us. Yet there are no condoms anywhere! What gives? I don’t care what the text says. The whole point, from what the fans of the book say, is that we’re meant to care and feel bad for Jude. If van Hove agrees with that, he should have visible condoms. If he doesn’t, then he is inconsistent in his messaging because he does push the “poor Jude” agenda pretty hard throughout the play. As for the nudity… A lot of it is well-placed to make a powerful impact. However, when the aforementioned person gets into bed with Jude, there is absolutely no reason not to get into it clothed, then pull off underwear under the covers and visibly drop it on the floor. Having this person naked contributes bugger all to anything, so it’s just there for the sake of showing us another naked body.
And this brings us neatly to the characters and the plot. Good grief. I know quite a few people who have read the book, and I’m pretty sure every one of them loved it because they felt bad for Jude. I am so sorry to have to break it to you, but, at least in the adaptaion (can’t speak for the book, but presumably so also?) Jude is an emotional vampire. Yes, it’s very-very sad that so many awful things happened to him. But he is damaged beyond repair. There is a small army of people who love him and are pouring this love into him by the bucketful, but it all gets sucked into a black hole. Jude is incredibly selfish. Look at his relationship with his best friend or his mentor or even his social worker. It’s all me-me-me-me-me. Just because he survived some horrific ordeals, that is not a carte blanche to always put himself first with those closest to him. I think most people would be thrilled to get a fraction of the care and the love Jude gets from those around him, yet none of it is ever enough for him. In fact, what point is the text trying to make? Is it that someone can be so damaged, that no amount of love and care will help them or that the “wounded bird” syndrome is a powerful thing, and we should be vigilant not to get sucked into it lest our own lives be ruined by it?
I get it that I haven’t read the book, but, looking at the play (and the fact that the woman walking out of the theatre next to me said that “the play was much lighter than the book”), two things spring to mind regarding Yanagihara’s writing. Firstly, the character of Jude is inconsistent. He somehow managed to get through school, then through university, become a successful lawyer, do all this community work, all whilst falling apart a little bit (no spoilers!) only to start falling apart massively and constantly now that all those stressful days are behind him? That is… odd. Jude spends years alone because he can’t and/or doesn’t want to be in a relationship, yet even with all these people around him to watch out for him, he gets into one with a terrible person. I think we’re meant to believe that he thinks he deserves it, but his actions suggest otherwise. That’s odd too. Also, why do all these people love Jude so very much and ever so unconditionally? Maybe the book explains it better, but the play certainly doesn’t. Toward the end of the play, Jude asks his friends, “who am I?”, and they all wax lyrical how he is this, that, and the other. But that is literally the first time any of this comes up. Having a horrible childhood isn’t enough of a reason for the universe to surround you with friends, love, positivity, career, success, money, and all that lot to make up for it. That’s just not how reality works.
Secondly, the vast majority of all the horrific things that happen to Jude are gratuitous. It’s shock value for the sake of shock value. It’s as if Yanagihara has a dare going with the readers/viewers: you think that’s sad? Bam, try this on for size! You don’t think a person can be any more atrocious toward another person? Hold my beer, I’ll show you. It doesn’t make for an interesting story. If I were to say to you, as an example unrelated to the book’s plot, here is a solder who did 3 tours in Iraq, watched half his company get blown up in front of him, was shot, lost an arm, came back home to a wife cheating on him with his best friend, had his dog run over, went back for the 4th tour, was captured and held prisoner for 2 years, then was rescued and taken home, you tell me: what kind of person would he be? Obviously damaged and not overly able to cope with everyday things. Not so clever, is it, when you just pile stuff on… It would be far more interesting if the book was a psychological exploration, whereby one or two terrible things happen, but then slowly over time, instead of healing, they take root and unravel the person from the inside out. The book is pulp fiction, pure and simple.
And so here we are. The play is incredibly graphic both in visuals and in text. I heard a few people fainted during some shows. And, unless you’re a big fan of the book, it’s not a great script (even if you are, I’d still encourage you to consider the text more critically). The play is long, and I reckon 15-20 minutes can be easily shaved off it, but it doesn’t drag on, which is good. But the quality of acting is unbelievably enjoyable. Norton simply brings the house down.
Cheapskate enjoyment value: £10 (would’ve been more for the acting, but lost a chunk of value for the text).
Bonus: A friend sent me an article about the Dutch production. The author there wrote a fantastic note about the image on the the original book cover. It’s one from the photographer Peter Hujar and is not what a lot of people seem to think it is. The irony of it, given Jude’s abilities (or inabilities, as the case may be), shouldn’t be lost on anyone, least of all Yanagihara.
Update: After much debating, I decided to see the show again at the Harold Pinter Theatre. The review can be found HERE.