top of page

A LITTLE LIFE: 2 Stars for the Unbearable Heaviness of Being an Audience Member

A splendid choice for masochists; a 4-hour pain-fest for just about everyone else

Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld

Review By: Theatre Monthly Panel

The idea of appending the word “porn” to various hobbies has become cliché: a word that had once been reserved for men in trench coats standing on shady corners now shows up as “real estate porn”, “baking porn”, and even “closet porn”, where voyeurs presumably ogle at neatly folded blouses and neckties. Ivo van Hove’s arresting A Little Life at the Harold Pinter Theatre manages to bundle all sorts of porn together. Based on Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 sprawling, door-stop novel, the drama will fascinate you, if you have a penchant for searing scenes of self-abuse, occasionally leavened by talk of high-flying Manhattan lawyers and low-lying Soho artists who make it big at Upper East side galleries. Otherwise, you might leave feeling brutalised and manipulated.

At some point in the nearly four-hour play, most audience members will look away, some will wipe tears, and others will stare at their partners wondering why in the world they have been plunged into such a dark place. Not that the stage is dark. Van Hove’s clever use of lighting and video screens of New York footage creates a kind of gladiator arena, as the protagonist Jude endures violence and humiliation, first at the hands and body parts of monks in a monastery, who rape and torture him, and later at the hands of so-called friends. Just as in the novel (which 2 of our 3 review panelists had read prior to seeing the play), things just get worse. And worse. And worse.

James Norton, first known to television watchers as the crime-solving vicar in Grantchester delivers a heartbreaking performance. He brings an otherworldliness that emphasises his vulnerability and elicits audience sympathy. His nakedness on stage is not gratuitous because his character is stripped of everything human and humane over the course of the show. There is blood, too. Hamlet, who bemoans slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, had it easy compared to Norton’s Jude. At one point Jude takes up a Christ-like pose as he is beaten and then seems to rise off the ground. Has the Crucifixion ever been staged in London with more horror? Scenes are sometimes accompanied by a string quartet on stage, and at one point Norton sings Mahler.

All of the performers do their best with this dire source material, especially those who portray those who Jude is close to, including his friends Willem (Luke Thompson), JB (Omari Douglas), Malcolm (Zach Wyatt), and adoptive father Harold (Zubin Varla). The book, which lacks any fragment of nuance, catharsis, or depth, but rather just portrays cycle after cycle of meaningless violence, is by Koen Tachelet, Van Hove and Yanagihara.

Who should come to the Harold Pinter Theatre to see A Little Life? Aside from devoted fans of van Hove and Norton, those who want to observe audiences as they are pummeled with melodrama and nihilistic notions. It is a well-told, well-staged, awful story that some will find arresting. Others will wonder why no one was arrested for inflicting such savagery and despair onto innocent audience members.


bottom of page