Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 24 October 2022

Review: A Little Life at BAM

BAM Howard Gilman Opera House ⋄ 20 October-29 October

Hanya Yanagihara’s novel takes the stage in a production by Ivo van Hove–brutality intact. Lane Williamson reviews.

Lane Williamson

“A Little Life” at BAM (Photo: Julieta Cervantes)

To some degree, talking about the violence in Ivo van Hove’s staging of A Little Life is reviewing its source material, Hanya Yanagihara’s doorstop opus of abuse and brutality from 2015. It’s much covered territory, particularly when Yanagihara’s follow-up novel, To Paradise, was released earlier this year and gave rise to an Internet reevaluation of her previous book. It’s true: she does subject her main character, Jude St. Francis, to a ceaseless barrage of trauma and violence, described in stark, vivid, she might say poetic language. In the book, Jude’s torture is captivating to the extent that we can feel empathy for him; it burrows deep in the reader, wrenching guts and heart. We want Jude to find some peace and so we flip the seven-hundred-plus pages only to find that he cannot.

When that violence is physicalized, as it is in the International Theater Amsterdam production running at BAM, the reader’s imagining of it is replaced by an actual image and the Jude St. Francis created in the mind is now physically replaced by the actor Ramsey Nasr (in a visceral, tour de force performance). In the past, van Hove has found a more lyrical way of depicting violence on stage. Even when there was actual blood involved as in A View from the Bridge, it fell in an elegant shower. Here, he opts for the literal. Is watching Nasr repeatedly slice his wrists open almost unbearable? Yes. Is it worse than what I imagined while reading the book? That’s a more complicated question.

Van Hove has long been interested in exposing the workings of his productions through live video, abrupt shifts in lighting and music, or addressing the audience directly. As convincing as Nasr is, it’s still very much a performance. When Jude goes into his bathroom to cut, Nasr sits against a standalone sink, the video screens go fuzzy, and a visible string quartet starts sawing away at what’s close to horror music. It’s seems extreme, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say van Hove knows what he’s doing. I think there’s a little more intention to those choices than merely plunging us into whatever van Hove thinks Jude’s psychology is. He knows we know it’s coming. He knows even the most stoic among us might wince and look away. By briefly turning the stage into a slasher movie, he’s amplifying the horror and bringing in an element of alienation. He’s not asking us to be on Jude’s side in those moments. He wants us to empathize with Andy, his friend/doctor, or Willem, his friend/companion, who desperately beg him to stop. We also want Jude to stop.

And then there’s the other level of violence inflicted on Jude by a trio of tormentors, all played by the brilliant Hans Kesting. When Brother Luke, Caleb, and Doctor Traylor are committing their absolutely vile acts against Jude, van Hove and longtime lighting designer Jan Versweyveld take a different approach. They bring the lights down very low, to a dim, somehow gray wash that barely lets us pick out the shapes of Jude and his rapist(s), almost as if van Hove doesn’t want us to see what’s happening. The dark veil that descends in these scenes is also Jude’s memory, his attempts to shut away the past in a shadowy room. Van Hove depicts the violence that happens to Jude differently from the violence that Jude takes upon himself as a reminder that the two things are not the same. They do not have the same causation for Jude and we should not lump them all together. 

As in the book, the extremity and the frequency of the violence does pile up and tumble over through the end of the play, reducing the hours before to a feeling that they were just one fucking thing after another. The potency drains; we’ve become inured to the overwhelming shit that Jude has to deal with. Yanagihara digs a hole so deep and throws Jude into the bottom of it–and he repeatedly hits the sides all the way down. There’s no getting out of it. Since the production is faithful to the novel, the production also doesn’t have a way out. Van Hove literally airlifts Jude out of it, ascending like Jesus Christ or Grizabella the Glamor Cat. Of course he has to die a horrific death to finally get some peace.

Lane Williamson

Lane Williamson is co-editor of Exeunt and a contributing critic at The Stage. He is a member of the Drama Desk and Outer Critics Circle.

Review: A Little Life at BAM Show Info

Produced by Brooklyn Academy of Music

Directed by Ivo van Hove

Written by Hanya Yanagihara (novel), Kitty Pouwels, Josephine Ruitenberg (translation), Koen Tachelet (adaptation), Erik Borgman (titles)

Scenic Design Jan Versweyveld (set), An D'Huys (costumes)

Lighting Design Jan Versweyveld (lighting, video), Mark Thewessen (video)

Sound Design Eric Sleichim

Cast includes Jason Derwig, Marieke Heebink, Maarten Heijmans, Edwin Jonker, Hans Kesting, Majd Mardo, Ramsey Nasr, Bart Slegers

Original Music Eric Sleichim

Show Details & Tickets

Running Time 4hr 10min


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