Adelaide Festival review: A Little Life

Hanya Yanagihara’s harrowing story of trauma and friendship tests the boundaries of suffering in a four-hour epic performance of A Little Life.

Mar 04, 2023, updated Mar 16, 2023
Two screens project New York City in motion in the stage production of 'A Little Life' which was presented at Adelaide Festival 2023. Photo: Adam Forte, Daylight Breaks

Two screens project New York City in motion in the stage production of 'A Little Life' which was presented at Adelaide Festival 2023. Photo: Adam Forte, Daylight Breaks

WARNING: This review contains references to abuse, trauma and self-harm


Whether it’s through our newsfeeds, film or a bingeable series, the exploitation of suffering is all too common. Zooming in on abuse and magnifying it to the point of obsession seems to be both en vogue and the new norm.

Consider Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel A Little Life, a bestseller in which the main action is either paedophiliac rape or self-harm. Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize and a finalist for America’s National Book Award (among other honours), it’s sold more than a million copies around the world, and last night the theatrical adaptation by renowned director Ivo van Hove and Internationaal Theater Amsterdam made its Australian debut at the Adelaide Festival to a standing ovation – though you would be hard-pressed to find a smile among those clapping.

Labelled by some as “trauma porn”, A Little Life on the page forces the unimaginable to be imagined, but on stage it must be watched. For nearly four hours.

As the audience files in, the actors are already in place. They’re cooking, smoking, joking with one another. The minimalist set shows a kitchen bench stage right, a medical examination bed adjacent, a couch stage left and a bathroom sink in the middle. We know it’s modern-day New York City because of the two screens on either side of the stage projecting the city in motion.

There’s a feeling of privileged, relaxed comradery, and once the show officially begins, that feeling continues. We meet the painter JB, architect Malcolm, actor Willem and lawyer Jude – four friends whose tightness is evident. But as the life-story of Jude begins to unfold, that comfortable, convivial feeling is murdered.

Jude’s abandonment and consequent upbringing at a monastery, and later his movement from one paedophile to the next, more psychotic paedophile, leaves him traumatised, scarred and disabled. As a way to deal with his sense of polluted self-worth, he cuts. Constantly. It’s clear his body experienced as one necessary part of a many-peopled whole feels exiled and unworthy. So he rejects love, keeps secrets, places himself in dangerous scenarios. It’s as agonising as it is captivating.

Ramsey Nasr, Edwin Jonker and Maarten Heijmans in Internationaal Theater Amsterdam’s A Little Life. Photo: Adam Forte, Daylight Breaks

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The play is performed in Dutch with English surtitles, memories playing out on the stage like a relay race where characters pass an invisible baton from one to the other so that time is elastic. One minute Jude (played with almost supernatural emotional endurance by Ramsey Nasr) is talking to his abuser, Brother Luke (played by Hans Kesting, who portrays all three of Jude’s abusers with equal believability), and the next his social worker, Ana (a cleverly plotted character acted out by Marieke Heebink), is helping Jude through a different traumatic moment in his life, years later, and Brother Luke is only just walking away.

All the main players are almost always somewhere on the stage, reading, painting, cooking, cleaning, revealing a Jude-world in which those who care for the troubled man are consistently present. It would be a love-fest if it wasn’t so horrid.

Ivo van Hove, artistic director of Internationaal Theater Amsterdam, is world-renowned for his ambitious, interpretive productions, including two previous Adelaide Festival favourites: the six-hour epic Roman Tragedies (2014) and the the 4.5-hour Kings of War (2018), both inspired by Shakespearean historical tragedies. The “tragedy” link to A Little Life is unmissable.

When the NYC screens become unfocused with white snow and the quartet near the first row of seats begins with the taut strings and the tense notes, it’s okay to look away, and many people do. The abuse is incessant and intense, and with the bright lighting allowing us to see the crowd directly in front of us (the show is performed in-the-round), we are all outed as witnesses. Why are we watching such cruelty and how much can we take? After returning from intermission, some seats are noticeably vacant.

This is a magnificent production and the acting is superb, but it would be questionable to say to the person next to you, “I loved it” at the end of the show. Even the actors didn’t smile as they took their bows. Recommended for audiences 18 and over, it not only contains graphic depictions of violence and self-harm, but also nudity and content about suicide.

If you fancy yourself a true indulger of heavily emotive catastrophes, you’ll be seriously rewarded, but do beware: A Little Life will ask a lot of you.

If this article has raised issues for you, you can call LifeLine on 13 11 14. Beyond Blue and headspace also offer mental health support.

A Little Life is playing at the Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre until March 8 as part of the 2023 Adelaide Festival. 

Read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.

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