Image: Harold Pinter Theatre

Why we should burn the play version of A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel ,A Little Life, has always been a controversial text. Following the life of four friends (Malcolm, JB, Willem, and Jude) in New York over the span of 40 years, the text delves into sexual and physical abuse, art, self-harm, aging, disability, queer identity, drug addiction, trauma, and family. Of course, it is not an easy read as it allows you to sit with these characters, in particular Jude, and truly understand and fully empathise with them through the countless pages that document their lives. You see the horrible things they endure, yes, but you also see them fall in love, excel in their careers, and grow as individuals. Even though the ending is not as optimistic as some may like it to be, that does not prevent the novel from being a beautiful testament to the human condition, centring these four beautiful, well-rounded characters. 

I wish that that the same thing was true of the play. Initially performed in 2018 in Amsterdam, the play transferred to the West End in 2023 with James Norton (Happy Valley, Little Women) as the titular Jude St Francis and Luke Thompson (Bridgerton) as Willem. The other characters are present in the play but their parts are significantly reduced – Malcolm (Zach Wyatt) has a little more than a few lines, JB (Omari Douglas) disappears after the first 20 minutes only to make the occasional reemergence when they need him to stand in the background, and Julia, Jude’s adoptive mother in the book, has been removed from the show entirely. Of course, I appreciate that in condensing a book that is over 700 pages into a four-hour play does mean that some things will inevitably be cut, but if the things that stay aren’t of benefit to the story, the characters, or the audience experience, then it is a question of why they are even there to begin with? 

For a book that has an ability to gnaw at you with its thorough and honest depictions of a litany of topics that manage to fall into a relatively uplifting tale about the power of endurance in the face of torment, the play simply falls short.

But what are the things that are left? Mostly it is an in-depth depiction of the trauma that Jude endures throughout his life at the hands of Brother Luke, his partner Caleb and ,Dr Traylor, all of which are played by the same actor which is an interesting idea that the play could explore – how trauma can haunt in both an emotional and almost physical sense, the patterns that may run through several encounters and how they all bleed into one another, and the toll it may take on an individual in many aspects of their life. Instead of answering these questions, or a litany of others, the play simply forces the audience to watch Jude endure never-ending cycles of self-harm and abuse for four hours. Very little about the rest of his life is made apparent – we rarely see him at work, with friends, partying or doing any hobbies. A common criticism levelled at the book is that there is very little to characterise Jude bar the abuse he endures, though this is far from the truth. He’s brilliant at maths, a swimmer, a cook, a lawyer, a singer, a close friend, and you feel these parts of him bleed into one another, so when Willem details it all back to him in the midst of a depressive point for Jude, it feels as though Willem is allowing him to hear what is necessary in order to comfort him. In the play it feels hollow as we’ve seen nothing but his abuse and torment for hours. 

Although Norton and Ramsey Nasr who originally assumed the role in Amsterdam have managed to bring physicality and empathy to their onstage interpretations of the role of Jude, both portraying him at various stages throughout his life, they simply have very little to do but present the horrors of this man’s life. For a book that has an ability to gnaw at you with its thorough and honest depictions of a litany of topics that manage to fall into a relatively uplifting tale about the power of endurance in the face of torment, the play simply falls short. After four hours of loosely strung together tales of horror, the audience is left with no sense of relief or even catharsis, simply a drained feeling at all they have just endured.  

Comments (1)

  • The play was also miscast (Norton should have played Willem, god know who Jude, but Jude isn’t white/European, he is ‘ethnically ambigious’, probably indigenous. The actor, of course, doesn’t need to be a textual doppelganger but some dramatic semblance would have benefited yet I am not denying Norton is an emotionally excellent actor)…yet physicality/actions are easier to portray, words less so and the sensitivity and quietness of Jude’s character was negated. The Jude of the play shouts, is churlish and petulant and swears at people. Jude is too fearful to behave so in domestic spaces (only at work where he feels safe and is he confident, ‘cold and vicious’ and strident). After Willem dies, and Jude himself is fading and grief-wrecked, only then does he (finally) demonstrate anger and child-like resistance. Jude’s vulnerability, and his friends’ need to retreat from their own fears surrounding Jude’s past/present was depleted via the script. Eliot Cowan was the stand out performance, such a difficult role and as you say, a convincing way to portray patterns and the continuum of abuse abused people often ‘attract’ and fall into because of trauma and low self-esteem , etc.

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