March 06, 2023

Tragic Lifelines

A Little Life
Based on the novel by Hanya Yanagihara.
Adaptation by Koen Tachelet
Internationaal Theater Amsterdam.
Adelaide Entertainment Centre Theatre
March 4. Duration: 4 hours including interval.
Until March 8.

Ramsey Nasr, Steven Van Watermeulen and Hans Kesting. Photo: Adam Forte

It is always a matter for celebration, at the Adelaide Festival, when Ivo van Hove and his company Internationaal Theater Amsterdam return with a new work. Based on the 2015 novel by Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life is a departure from Van Hove’s large repertoire of classic texts. Set in New York’s Soho, its 800 pages describe the lives of four young men who meet in college and charts their destinies over 30 years.

JB is a visual artist on the make, Willem an actor on the rise, Malcolm an architect soon to thrive and Jude is a respected lawyer with an undisclosed history, tormented by childhood sexual abuse and trauma. Rich in American detail, the novel explores friendship, love, addiction, and the limited consolations of material success.

In this stage version, artfully adapted by Koen Tachelet, van Hove has limited the American references. This is not the Netflix ten part version. Rather it has been distilled to essentials of story and characterization, transforming it into a contemporary stage tragedy.

Performed in Dutch with English surtitles, it uses a large stage with the audience facing from two sides. The décor is spare and functional. There are tables indicating an artist studio here and an architect’s drawing board there, there are simple couches and low-slung chairs where the actors sit, as still as cats, waiting for their next cue. At each end of the stage, large screens run a continuing loop of mundane NYC street scenes but it is mere wallpaper. The focus is on the actors at all time. And they are extraordinary in their clarity and assurance.

At the centre is Ramsey Nasr, unforgettable as Jude St Francis, the ruined boy, now irreparably damaged man, self-mutilating and drowning in shame. His presence is constant as are the manifestations of his plight. In the middle of the large empty stage is a wash basin on a pedestal. On the underside of this banal object are taped his cutting blades, rolled neatly as if for a surgeon, waiting for the next irresistible impulse to cause pain to release pain.

Jude is a wreck. His legs don’t work properly, he forgets to eat, and he is constantly adjusting the bloodied bandages around his wrists. He wears office suits and ties, but as the play progresses, more bloodstains soak though his white shirt and the more desperate are his attempts to keep his sleeves rolled down. Through all this, Nasr maintains a kind of dignity and stoicism, it is also frozen shame. He is in constant purgatory. It is not heroic, never melodramatic. Just an immovable fact of his life. He is the ordinary version of Jude the saint of lost causes. He is the most hopeless case.

Around him are his devoted friends. They have their issues and problems and they lead busy lives in their work worlds too. But they are drawn back to Jude. He puts on his brave face that promises that things will improve and they serenade him all over again.

Maarten Heijmans as Willem is trying to rescue him with love. He is a fount of kindness and his patient attendance is something akin to a medieval suitor. He desires Jude but remains chaste. Eventually it is apparent that Jude’s sexual capacity, both physical and emotional, had been obliterated even before it began. Willem, it is revealed, had a brother confined to a wheelchair whom he revered for his fortitude and good nature. Some of this he transfers to Jude whom he believes he can cure and mend with love, that it will conquer all.

Others such as JB (played by assistant director Daniel Hoen in a last minute substitution for the indisposed Majd Mardo) struggle to please Jude. But JB the hustling painter who immortalizes him in a series of paintings that attract the attention of buyers from MOMA, offends him by not seeking his permission to sell. In a moment of frustration he ridicules him as St Jude the cripple and capers in cruel parody. For this he is sent to Coventry, relegated by Arthur (or maybe Galahad) from the Round Table.

Nasr captures this rigorous principle, this unyielding rigour in Jude even as he is abject and degraded. Edward Jonker as Mal, pays tribute to Jude with his architectural plans. Rebuffed for the temerity of suggesting that his loft might need some disability aids in the design, he returns to his drawing board to humour and console him. Each of these relationships is established with emotional thrift and vivid dramatic impact.

Steven van Watermeulen as Harold the father figure, who formerly adopts Jude at the age of thirty, is unlike the hearty American version in the novel. Rather he is a prim, dignified man, who spends his non-performing stage time cooking a meal which wafts into our nostrils. The cast eat it in open view of the mingling audience when the interval begins after the first two hour mark.

It is Harold, his benefactor and patron, who nonetheless is forever unrolling yards of absorbent paper and kneeling down to wipe up the most recent pools of blood, as if he is Job also being tested with endless tasks and lessons in futility. And for the medical toil, it is Bart Siegers, as Andy, the doctor who first treated Jude’s self-mutilation in Emergency, and is now the go-to in the succession of crises that follow, each escalating in seriousness. It is he who wearily repeats the medical warnings, and he who endlessly battles to mend him.

These shifts by his friends, this roster of vigilance is staged with ritualistic calm. There is no recrimination or open resentment. Ivo van Hove brings a Dutch Calvinist quiet to these scenes . It is sordid Vermeer not Tennessee Williams or Larry Kramer. But it has echoes of the AIDS vigils, so perhaps Tony Kushner’s Angels are hovering here too.

Interspersed with these ministrations we see Jude invaded by what he calls his hyena memories. Memories of unerasable cruelties, unerasable because they are inscribed on his body, in his ravaged insides, his damaged limbs and nerve ends.

In flashbacks, we are made to witness Jude’s history of mortification and violent abuse. In scenes of terrifying lucidity the extraordinary Hans Kesting (whose utterly free-from-cliché, Richard III was the revelation in Kings of War back in the 2018 Adelaide Festival) plays, in turn, all three of Jude’s demonic torturers.

First, Brother Luke from the monastery to which Jude was sent after being abandoned in garbage as an infant and then raised in heartless and incompetent children’s homes. Luke seduces him with kind promises and perverted declarations of love. He conjures a monstrous marriage in a rustic setting – a tryst in a cabin beside a lake with boy not yet eight. When it is revealed that he is pimping him to a paedophile ring our revulsion is even greater.

Then Kesting appears as Caleb, the psychopathically sadistic fashion company CEO who rapes Jude repeatedly and brutally derides and punishes his disability like a Medieval Vice figure. These scenes are harrowing but not sensationalized. Their horror is as much conjured in our imaginations as realized on the stage before us.

Similarly, with the most evil of all, Dr Traylor, who imprisons Jude over a number of months. First he cures him of his venereal disease. Then each day for ten days he brings medication. It is like a series of repetitions in a depraved folk tale- before systematically scourging him as a whore; a boy of sixteen who has been abused against his will since the age of five. It culminates in the blood sport night hunt when Traylor, pursues Jude in his car, taunting him to out-run him, while he shines a huge beam of light on him, revealing his wretched nakedness. It here that his athlete’s legs and spine are permanently mutilated beyond repair.

Kesting brings careful differentiation between each of these characters without a shred of cliché or guignol. There is a clinical politeness to Luke and Traynor’s implacable cruelty, while the entitled rage in Caleb is that of a high-functioning, high status psychopath. Each of his characterisations is flawless in its evil nuance and they make our flesh crawl. It is the most courageous acting to see. Peter Brook, in explaining his version of the Theatre of Cruelty, called it pitiless acting.

The other supplier of flashbacks is the excellent Marieke Heebink, whom we saw in the titular role in the streamed video version of Medea directed by Simon Stone from the 2021 Festival. As Ana, the counsellor, she intervenes and tries to help Jude, already extensively traumatized and damaged at fifteen.

She is the first to help him reverse his shame and guilt, to insist he is not to blame. She offers strategies to reframe his self-loathing. Like a guardian angel she is fighting not just to win back his spirit and will to live, but to retrieve his very soul. This is Psychomachia, the recurrent subject of Medieval Morality plays, the struggle between Virtues and the Devil for the safety of the human soul. Ana’s swift death from cancer is an inconsolable loss to Jude, even as her shade reappears frequently throughout his life.

There is so much in this production which warrants praise and admiration. I called it a contemporary tragedy and so it is. The tragedy is that Jude, an innocent child, is broken on the wheel by the age of five. It is a tragedy (and a crime) because he is already beyond repair. He cannot be fixed, not with hope or faith or love. He is already dead. Never in a stage work have I seen a more sustained and confrontingly believable depiction of how a life ruined by systematic sexual and mental abuse cannot be redeemed or restored.

This is what has happened to thousands of victims of child sexual abuse from authority figures – priests, teachers, doctors, supervisors in institutions and orphanages. Men and women who were trusted to protect and who broke that trust. Or worse, used it as a cloak to offend repeatedly and without mercy. This is what the life-long consequence of childhood abuse looks like.

We know this from journalism and TV film documentary. But with a production such as this we can really know it. In our minds, our hearts and imaginations, from a cast of actors, in four gruelling but illuminating hours in the theatre.

Ivo van Hove and his exceptional company of actors, choreographers, lighting and sound experts Jan Versweyveld and Eric Steichim, and musicians (including the live performing string quartet BLINDMAN) have produced a work of intelligence and profound empathy.

This is what Aristotle meant by pity and fear. This is how art can instruct us and we can understand the nature of the inexplicable and unforgivable. This is what Euripides, Aeschylus and Sophocles gave us; the chance to imagine and rehearse the best and worst and then see the actors, restored to life and health, stand and take a bow. In this way the stage is a safe space. Not to protect us from the truth but to countenance it. It is how we learn about hard and difficult aspects, the forbidden and despised. It is what the stage has always been there for.

In its stillness and intimacy, its silent pain, and tragic inevitability, Ivo van Hove’s latest production, A Little Life is actually a great deal of life. And it is theatre at its very best.

Murray Bramwell

This is an extended version of the shorter notice for The Australian published below. Revised March 6, 2023.


No Comments »

No comments yet.

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment