This powerfully moving adaptation of Hanya Yanagihara’s novel leaves you feeling emotionally drained.
To those who like me have never read Hanya Yanagihara’s critically acclaimed novel and have no idea what to expect, without any spoilers, this is not an easy play to watch unfold – particularly as darker elements of Jude’s story begin to take centre stage. However, it is an extraordinary production that certainly delivers plenty emotionally across the course of the immense three hours and forty minutes.
While it is easy to be intimidated by such a running time, the brilliancy of both Koen Tachelet, Ivo van Hove and Hanya Yanagihara’s adaptation and Ivo Van Hove’s production is that not a single minute of that is wasted.
The play begins with four friends: Jude, JB, Malcolm and Willem – all living in New York and at JB’s birthday reflect on their lives up until that point, with Jude the only one who seems disengaged from proceedings. But as the show takes a deeper look at their friendship and how their different attitudes to success, wealth, addiction, and pride go onto influence their lives and friendship, the focus sharpens on Jude and the reasons for which he keeps everyone at arms length – which leads to some truly horrendous revelations as we are taken deeper into his background. As a play, it is well structured as we see how the characters around Jude who all try and help him and interact with him and there is a defined focus on the variety of types of male friendship. It flits between the past and the present effortlessly.
The writing is consistently sharp and raw, with the audience being able to feel just how powerful each word and sentence is in terms of the overall story and is a genuine emotional rollercoaster as Jude’s self-harm and painful self-loathing come to light. This is not a show that shies away from showing self-harm or highlighting sexual abuse and in many ways it feels as though it goes too far to the point where I had to look away from the stage. Yes, it is powerful to seeing this portrayed so realistically but equally it feels overly explicit.
Director Ivo Van Hove has created a slow-burner of a production, that allows relationships and the story to develop at its own pace, which is wonderful -particularly when dealing with sensitive issues that are important to the story. There is plenty of opportunity for the audience to get to know the characters before it is all somewhat shockingly taken away, heightening that sense of loss. As the show goes on, the audience becomes more emotionally invested in the story unfolding.
Featuring set design by Jan Versweyveld, the production is also very striking to look at, cleverly incorporating several locations into one – whether it is a hospital, Jude’s flat or Howard’s kitchen meaning there is no awkwardness in moving the story around from location to location. I did feel as though Versweyveld’s video design, while capturing the location of New York proved a little distracting at times – particularly during the quieter and serious moments. In contrast though, the lighting was powerfully effective and chilling, enhancing the bleakness and sadness that lies behind the story well. Eric Sleichim’s music and sound was beautifully subtle for the most part that works for the sensitive parts, but when it breaks into a more dramatic mode it really enhances the horror of what the audience is seeing.
The cast all deliver some of the most emotionally raw performances I have seen on stage and are all equally mesmerising to watch. James Norton as Jude beautifully captures the emotional complexities of the character as his past increasingly makes an impact on his future. It is a thoughtful and insightful performance that consistantly packs a punch, while his chemistry with Luke Thompson’s Willem is wonderfully tender and natural. Thompson provides an understated but warm performance as the loyal Willem, with Omari Douglas as JB providing a nice contrast in the way he is much more ambitious and going out to enjoy life. Special mention should also go yo Zubin Varla as Harold, whose sense of compassion and patience shines a beacon of hope to Jude’s life – it is a heartbreaking performance.
As I have already mentioned, this is not an easy watch and I do recommend if you are planning to see it – please check out the content warnings before you go. But my goodness what an extremely powerful, heart wrenching and mesmerising production it is.
By Emma Clarendon