A Little Life

Once again Ivo van Hove with the International Theatre Amsterdam has brought a play which is compelling, confronting, and powerful, to the Adelaide Festival, one which will stay with you long after the applause has faded and the stage lights dimmed.

A Little Life is adapted from the novel of the same name by Hanya Yanagihara, which was short listed for the Booker prize, and won numerous awards. Basically the themes involve male relationships, abuse and trauma, self-harm and suicide, but to break the story into a list of issues is to ignore the skill and empathy with which these themes are explored.

Based in New York, four friends, Jude (Ramsey Nasr) Willem (Maarten Heiljmans) JB (played last night by Daniel t’Hoen) and Malcolm (Edwin Jonker) work at occupations which epitomise the creative world of that city, as  a corporate lawyer, an actor, visual artist and architect. Three of the friends are also united in their desire to know more of Jude’s earlier life, realising intuitively that his past experiences impact on his present life.

The stage is open to audiences on either side, and the set lends itself to this arrangement, With an artist’s studio at one end, the kitchen, and the doctor’s surgery at the other, the centre, with a sink representing home. All the characters, including Caleb, Luke and Traylor (Hans Kesting) Ana (Marieke Heebink) Harold (Steven Van Watermeulen) and Andy (Bart Siegers) move comfortably around this set which also allows the story to flow through time changes, and gradual revelations of the abuse and trauma which Jude St. Francis had suffered as a boy from the age of five. He was so emotionally traumatised and filled with self-loathing that he could not relate to those who loved and supported him, or believe himself worthy of such love. For a few in the audience this was so confronting that they walked out, and for all who stayed.

Anas a social worker and at times a narrator strove to help Jude, as did Harold. Hands were held out to support and shelter him, and the tragedy was that for many years he could not hold those hands. Neither could he attain eventual peace of mind.There is trauma, self-harm, rape and suicide, but more besides, such as the dynamics within the group, too complex to encapsulate in a review. 

Scenes  of violence and of self harm, while confronting, were not as chilling as the betrayal by Brother Luke who promised him happiness in a cabin by a river, growing vegetables and catching fish, and instead prostituted him to clients and friends, There was a disturbing, happily unwarranted, sense of deja vu when his lover, Willem, suggested a house by the lake, surrounded by trees, and a garden. In the same way a sense of danger lurked in Harold’s offer to adopt Jude as his son, a totally genuine offer, which Jude accepted. How difficult was it for Jude to trust?

All the performances were first class, including that of Daniel ’t Hoen who stepped into the role just that day and earned extra applause at the end.  Ramsey Nasr  brilliantly brought to the part of Jude St. Francis a picture of a young man tortured by his past, yet with a charismatic brilliant personality, at times full of bravado, at others a child like simplicity and vulnerability. Hans Kesting, who played Brother Luke, Caleb and Dr.Traylor, was convincing in all three roles. Praise must be given also to Maarten Hellman as Willem, who offered support and understanding to Jude.

Special mention to the BLINDMAN string quartet,  Stefanie Van Backlé, Marion Des, Monica Goicea and Femke Verstappen, whose unobtrusive music enhanced the production, as did the very effective lighting.

The play is in Dutch, with English surtitles, and is four hours long, with an interval. Do not be daunted by either.   Do not be daunted by the strong violence and nudity in the play, as this is not gratuitous violence or soft porn. On the other hand if you feel that there may be trigger points, be aware, and wary.

 In A Little Life we have courageous drama, celebrated internationally, and justly so.

Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre 3-8 March

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