‘A Little Life’ Comes to the Stage. The Audience Can’t Look Away.


The play will be performed in Dutch, with English supertitles for some performances, but Ms. Yanagihara said she hadn’t read a final translation. “We have had a couple of conversations about it, but much of what is in the play is going to be a mystery to me,” she added.

In rehearsal on a recent afternoon, Jude, played by Ramsey Nasr, was screaming on a hospital bed after burning his own arm and pouring salt into the wound. Then, with only a few physical gestures, Mr. Nasr convincingly transformed himself into a 12-year-old child, pleading with his captor, Brother Luke (Hans Kesting), to stop selling him to men for sex. Then the scene shifted to an encounter with another of Jude’s tormentors, this one wielding a fire poker.

During rehearsal, a video screen hanging center stage amplified the suffering, by showing live footage that zoomed in on details: Brother Luke’s hand groping Jude’s crotch, or Jude’s agonized face as he squirmed on the hospital bed.

Jan Versweyveld, the production’s set, lighting and video designer and Mr. van Hove’s longtime romantic partner and collaborator, said the live video element was still under discussion, noting that the choice was dramaturgical — “it enhances the voyeuristic aspect of it,” he said — but also practical, to let the people in the back rows see.

The goal, he added, was to bring the audience closer to Jude’s experience. “I think it’s out of respect for the story and out of respect for the character Jude and his friends that we want to be as honest as we can possibly be in theater,” Mr. Versweyveld said. “What do you do in the sex scenes? How far do you go?”

Ms. Yanagihara said she hoped the production would address the book’s brutality in the most direct way possible.

“Some of the most thrilling moments on the stage are the ones where you can see that the director has really grappled with the idea of violence and has chosen not to fetishize it or to beautify it, but has presented it as something that the audience can’t look away from — that the audience is made to look,” she said. “I always imagined it as being visceral and that if it ever was presented cinematically or theatrically that it would be done unsparingly.”

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