His English-language version, adapted with Koen Tachelet as well as Yanagihara herself, is fronted by familiar screen faces, most notably Happy Valley’s James Norton as the story’s troubled protagonist, Jude. It’s as relentlessly dark and harrowing as its source material, but artfully staged with a breathtaking central performance from Norton, who is put through his paces mentally and physically.
Beginning slightly later in the characters’ lives than the book, the show introduces us to the four Manhattan-dwelling best friends aged 30. JB (It’s a Sin’s Omari Douglas) is finding success as a figurative artist, Malcolm (The Witcher’s Zach Wyatt) is an architect still living with his parents, while actor Willem (Bridgerton’s Luke Thompson) and public defence attorney Jude are getting by in a one-bed flat in Chinatown. For the next three-and-a-half hours, we follow the characters through as many decades as they all, remarkably, find success in their chosen professions. However, more time is spent in Jude’s ruminations on his past, and through flashbacks of brutal beatings and rapes at the hands of paedophiles, we, the audience, learn about the horrors of his childhood long before his friends.
Luke Thompson (Willem), James Norton (Jude). Photo: Jan Versweyveld
There’s a sense the lives of everyone in the story revolve around Jude and, as a result, the majority of this eight-strong, fine cast are working with two-dimensional material. Still, each excels in their supporting part. Zubin Varla makes a loveable, stoic Harold – Jude’s adult father figure; Douglas is spot-on as the sassy, selfish JB; Wyatt brings bucketloads of non-judgemental energy to the especially flat part of Malcolm; and Thompson masters the wide-ranging emotions of Willem, while always maintaining his likeability. On the flipside, there’s Elliot Cowan, playing each of Jude’s primary abusers, channelling different strands of evil into the parts of Brother Luke, Dr Traylor and Caleb.
It’s Norton, though, who clinches it, delivering a performance far greater than we’ve seen of him thus far. It’s a hugely physical role and one that demands an incredible amount of vulnerability (in one scene, a beaten and bloodied Jude runs naked and terrified around the stage). In the tricky role of an introverted lead whose instinct is to make himself the smallest in the room, Norton’s performance is at its fullest when he’s alone, paralysed by pain and voicing his torturous inner monologue.
To the trauma, and while the scenes of Jude self-harming are a difficult watch, and the amount of blood mopped off the stage could fill a small bath, they’re juxtaposed with scenes of tender intimacy. Harold’s adoption of Jude and the shift in Jude and Willem’s relationship are especially moving.
Zach Wyatt (Malcolm), Luke Thompson (Willem), James Norton (Jude). Photo: Jan Versweyveld
Jan Versweyveld’s set remains the same throughout, with a kitchen counter to one side (where Harold, the embodiment of safe harbour, is often preparing meals), a sink for Jude’s bathroom and a smear of red paint on the floor that seems to outline the close quarters of Jude and Willem’s apartment in earlier scenes, and later resembles Jude’s lost blood.
Some directorial decisions are a little quirky, as you’d expect from van Hove. Footage of Manhattan’s streets projected onto walls on either side of the stage can be distracting, as can the tinny music played over speakers and the eerie, discordant score played by a live string quartet positioned in the stalls. Having the past on stage with the present, be it Brother Luke and Harold sitting either side of Jude like angel and devil, or the physical manifestation of Jude’s dead saviour Ana (a strong Nathalie Armin), might be confusing to those unfamiliar with the book.
Yet there’s far more to praise than pick at in van Hove’s A Little Life. It’s as relentless and shattering as you’d expect, but a worthy, tasteful adaptation of Yanagihara’s traumatic story, performed with prowess and sensitivity.
A further five weeks have been added to the sold-out production of A Little Life on stage. After completing its run at the Harold Pinter Theatre on Sunday 18 June, the show is transferring to the Savoy Theatre, where it'll run from Tuesday 4 July – Saturday 5 August. CLICK HERE TO BOOK
|What||A Little Life, Harold Pinter Theatre review|
|Where||Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street, London, SW1Y 4DN | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Piccadilly Circus (underground)|
25 Mar 23 – 18 Jun 23, 7:00 PM – 10:40 PM
04 Jul 23 – 05 Aug 23, 7:00 PM – 10:40 PM
|Website||Click here for more information and to book|