For years, the Belgian director Ivo van Hove avoided reading Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling contemporary epic A Little Life (2015). Many of his colleagues were avid fans of the decades-spanning tale of male friendship and bodily trauma, but Van Hove—known for sleek, spare stage adaptations of The Damned, A View from the Bridge, and Network—had mentally filed the book, with its now iconic Peter Hujar cover, under “another gay coming-of-age story.”
Translated into more than 20 languages, A Little Life follows four deeply bonded friends—Jude, Willem, JB, and Malcolm—from young adulthood into middle age. After Van Hove’s two best friends in theater each gave him a copy of the book, he relented and spent a summer in upstate New York reading the heart-wrenching saga. On pages filled with depictions of rape and self-mutilation as well as interludes of selfless love and reverie, Van Hove wrote notes.
In 2018, adapting the book into a play for International Theater Amsterdam, Van Hove trimmed the text’s clinical descriptions of flesh-cutting to just three or four scenes in an almost four-hour run time. “I am a director of visceral emotional experiences,” he tells me. “But I told Hanya I had to reduce those moments, because what can be handled in a book—by putting it away for a bit—feels a lot more intense in live performance.” When the production makes its New York debut, at Brooklyn Academy of Music on October 20, those in the audience who are faint of heart will be cued to each sequence of physical violence by music from a live violin quartet.
“To reach the book’s effect, I have to deal with theatrical elements,” adds Van Hove, who is known for his electrifying use of technical elements onstage—most notably screens and dancing lights. Lispenard, the discreet Tribeca street that Jude calls home for the majority of the book, as well as the neighboring west side of downtown New York, appears on video screens that surround the action. Jan Versweyveld, the show’s scenographer and light designer, echoes the protagonist’s early-morning walks with footage of deserted New York streets.
For the most part, however, Yanagihara kept her book free of historical references, and this helped Van Hove present the production in Dutch without signifiers of any period. “The rest is an existentialist setting that asks questions about why we are here in this moment,” he says. The character of Harold—a New England professor who becomes Jude’s father figure—cooks on one side of the stage while other corners belong to JB’s artist studio and Malcom’s architecture office—all while Jude and his devoted best friend, Willem, maneuver life at its barest.
“I wanted to create the book’s sensation of horror without a healing moment,” says Van Hove, “through my theatrical means.” Indeed, when he directed West Side Story for Broadway, in 2020, his stripped-down contemporary adaptation possessed a similar spiral of heartbreak. “My cast members were between 20 and 24, all reading A Little Life backstage,” Van Hove remembers. “When I told them I had directed the play in Europe, they almost fainted—Hanya’s words resonate.”
A Little Life is on at the Brooklyn Academy of Music from October 20 through October 29
Osman Can Yerebakan is a New York–based curator and writer