Review by Matthew Hocter
There is a saying that I have heard a lot of the last few years, “we need to get uncomfortable in order to get truly comfortable.” Whilst the sentiment associated with this saying was for very different reasons initially, it is something that I have tried to apply to my writing work when it comes to challenging myself. Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life, an international bestseller and one that grapples with topics like self-harm, self-loathing and pedophilic abuse, makes the word ‘challenging’ seem like the greatest understatement ever made.
With its recent theatrical adaptation by renowned director Ivo van Hove, along with theInternationaal Theater Amsterdam, A Little Life’s Australian debut for the Adelaide Festival has left audiences speechless with it’s complex, painful and brutally raw brilliance from both the performances of the cast and it’s in your face story telling.
The story centers around four friends; painter JB, architect Malcolm (Edwin Jonker), actor Willem (Maarten Heijmans) and lawyer Jude (Ramsey Nasr). The character of JB normally played by Majd Mardo had fallen sick earlier that day and his stand in, Daniël 't Hoen the assistant director and with no acting experience, filled in at the last minute. It is important to note and commend the outstanding performance given by Daniël 't Hoen and his very obvious acting talent.
The play was completely performed in Dutch and whilst this was an interesting and challenging way to view and review theatre, with the subtitles sitting above the centre of the stage, it made it difficult to follow the actors as I found myself constantly looking up to read the dialogue. The open plan stage allowed for the audience to be seated on either side with two full width screens playing images of New York in motion at either end. Minimalist in approach, the set still held all the vital components to more than convey the plays surrounds as the changing scenes required.
With some labelling A Little Life as “trauma porn,” that almost seems like an easy cop out for something that straddles some of the most intense and confronting topics. Jude’s carefree attitude is quickly killed off as his constant flashbacks start to build a horrific picture of his childhood at a monastery and being trafficked for sex. As he recounts one traumatic account after another, it becomes apparent that his escape is to cut. His self-loathing brought on by a life of having being used by numerous pedophiles as some sort of play thing, sees him enter into life threatening situations, an inability to love and be loved and the secrecy and shame that surrounds the internalization from those on the receiving end of sexual, physical and mental abuse. It is painstakingly heart wrenching to watch, but a necessity in understanding Jude.
Stand out performances by Hans Kesting who plays Brother Luke and all of Jude’s other abusers (a total of three characters), as well as Ana, Jude’s Social Worker and voice of reason, played by Marieke Heebink. Kestings frightening believability as Jude’s abusers sent a wave of deathly fear throughout the theatre and at times, made my stomach churn with a mixture of angst and sadness. The interval in this 4 hour play, wasn’t just a moment to grab a drink, it was a much needed break to process the last two hours.
There is something innately human about the dilemma we face when confronted with others pain and suffering. One of the show’s most poignant moments is when both screens begin to fade in a lost transmission like blur and the quartet sitting just below the stage and in front of the audience, begin to eerily taught their strings. The imminent arrival of Jude’s pain and the razor that cures it,are put on full display. No dimming of lights, a blatant act of self-harm for all to see. It was beyond hard to watch and needless to say, there was a notable number of vacant seats when the show returned after the intermission.
It goes without saying that this is one of those rare theatre moments where one cannot fault the production (other than where the subtitles were placed) in any way whatsoever. It was brilliant. Confronting, but most definitely brilliant. This play though, is not for everyone and clearly some in the audience had little to no idea just how graphic and true to the book this would be. It’s hard to explain how someone could recommend something as heavy as A Little Life, but sometimes it’s important to get uncomfortable with things that society wants hidden, so that we can ultimately get comfortable in order to help those that have experienced said traumas. Complicated, but not impossible.
A Little Life is anything but its namesake, if anything, it is bigger than anything I have experienced theatrically. This production, should you allow, will ask more of you, both emotionally and mentally, than you have ever had to give before.