Tuesday, March 7, 2023



A Little Life Based on the novel by Hanya Yanagihara.

Concept and direction by  Ivo van Hove. Based on the novel by Hanya Yanagihara. Translation Kitty Pouwels and Josephine Ruitenberg  Adaptation Koen Tachelet  Dramaturgy Bart Van den Eynde Scenographer, light design Jan Versweyveld  Video Mark Thewessen, Jan Versweyveld  Music and sound design Eric Sleichim  Musicians BL!NDMAN [strings]: Stefanie Van Backlé (violin), Marlon Dek (cello),Monica Goicea (viola), Femke Verstappen (violin)  Costumes An D'Huys  Assistant director Daniël 't Hoen; Assistant scenographer Bart van Merode

Directed by Ivo van Hove. International Theatre Amsterdam. Adelaide Entertainment Centre. March 33 – 8 2023  Adelaide Festival’

Reviewed by Peter Wilkins

Ivo van Hove

Adelaide Festival audiences are familiar with the powerful and epic theatrical tour de forces from Ivo van Hove’s International Theatre Amsterdam. His productions of the Roman Tragedies and Kings of War are legendary. This year he has brought his adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s extraordinary modern classic A Little Life to Adelaide, staged in the vast  Adelaide Entertainment Centre with audiences on two sides of the large setting with a kitchen and hospital bed at one end and an artist’s studio and sofa at the other. Behind each setting a video of street scenes in Amsterdam appears throughout the production. At the commencement of the four hour performance including an interval actor Marten Heijmans announces that the black actor playing JB has contracted Covid and flown back to Amsterdam. The part of the artist will be played by the production’s white associate director. Let your imaginations work. After all that is the stuff of theatre.

Ramsey Nasr,Steven van Watermeulen and Hans Kesting in A Little Life

I have not read Yanhigara’s novel and beyond the notes in the Festival booklet I was largely unprepared for the harrowing events that were about to unfold, told with such gripping intensity and realism that I was drawn into the unimaginable trauma of lawyer Jude’s childhood abuse. A Little Life tells the story of four friends, the central character, Jude, a New York Lawyer (Ramsey Nasr), actor Willem (Marten Heijmans), architect Malcolm (Edward Jonker) and artist JB, played in this performance by  assistant director Daniel 't Hoen.

As Jude’s history is revealed over the course of the play, the audience is shocked and appalled by his degrading abuse by the manipulative and confusing father figure Father Luke, the paedophile Catholic brethren, the sinister Dr. Traylor and the sadistic Caleb. It is a cartel of evil that plummets the depths of depravity to satisfy their desires at the expense of a child’s innocence. From the age of eight Jude was subjected to the horror and the cruelty and the shame of his subjection to their coercive treatment. True friendship is clothed in loyalty and trust and the friends seek to discover Jude’s demons and assure him of his guiltless role in his troubled past.

Ramsey Nasr, Edward Jonker and Marten Heijsman in A Little Life

In a production so visceral, so meticulously detailed and purposeful, van Hove and his actors live the moment to the utmost, lending the play a startling reality. It shocks the senses and forcibly forces an audience’s response. Bestial abuse contrasts with the attempts by friends to help Jude. The kindness and love of Willem, the care and concern of his doctor, Andy (Bart Siegers), his adoption by Harold (Steven van Watermeulen), who lost his own invalid son, all seek to rescue Jude from his inner torment.

Van Hove’s direction is precise and deliberately measured allowing each moment of his visionary adaptation of Yanagihara’s novel to illuminate each character’s actions and motives and his vision of a world where the worst evil can coexist with the finest good. Where Father Luke, Dr. Traylor and Caleb, all played with remarkable distinctiveness by Kesting,  epitomize the worst in human nature, Willem, Harold and Andy shine a light on the goodness of the human heart. Van Hove’s A Little Life combines the theatre of cruelty with the hope of redemption. The audience is exposed to Jude’s bloody self harming and the brutal act of sodomy as well as the gentle lovemaking of Willem and the food preparation by Harold to help Jude recover.  Ramsey Nasr’s performance as Jude is extraordinary, charting the excruciating pain and humiliation of abuse with the agony of guilt. Naked on stage he confronts the horror of his history with a physical and emotional intensity that is riveting and inescapably moving.  A string quartet provides the score to this epic work and International Theatre Amsterdam’s production of A Little Life stirs the heart and mind, exposing the rawness and the darkest abyss of the human condition. The four hours may be gruelling, but they are also empowering. Jude’s final act of self determination may have been the unavoidable consequence of circumstances beyond his control but Hanyagihara’s novel and van Hove’s theatrical interpretation offer hope for the triumph of true friendship and good over evil.

A Little Life is theatre at its most brilliant. A standing ovation once again acts as a testament to the importance of van Hove’s confronting and challenging appearance at an Adelaide Festival.

Photo of Ivo van Hove by Jan Versweyveld

Production photos by Adam Forte