A Little Life: four-hour adaptation of divisive queer novel heading to Adelaide festival

Ivo van Hove’s play will make its Australian debut in Adelaide in 2023, and be performed in Dutch with subtitles

A queer play that has divided its audiences as much as the source material divided its readers promises to be one of the most controversial and challenging works in next year’s Adelaide festival.

Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life sold more than 1m copies and was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 2015. The Atlantic praised the novel as astonishing, while the London Review of Books slammed it for its grim and relentless exploration of drug addiction, child sexual abuse, sexual violence and self-hatred, asking its readers: “What real person trapped in this novel wouldn’t become a drug addict?”

In 2018, International Theatre Amsterdam, under the direction of Ivo van Hove, brought the 720-page novel to the stage in a more than four-hour-long play performed in Dutch, which will make its debut in Australia at the Adelaide festival with English subtitles.

When A Little Life was staged at the Edinburgh international festival earlier this year, critics and audiences were similarly divided. While the Guardian praised the production, critic Mark Fisher warned that “for all its insights into psychological damage, A Little Life forces us to wallow in misery, our sadness more indulgent than radical”. Scottish outlet the Herald gave Van Hove’s production five stars, but the Times gave it two, questioning the integrity of a play that “relentlessly punishes a character for our viewing pleasure”.

Announcing the 2023 program on Wednesday, the Adelaide festival is spruiking the play – which will feature the original Amsterdam cast – as a “gripping narrative” tracking the deeply intertwined lives of four men over more than three decades.

For many Australian theatregoers its length is comparable only to Neil Armfield’s adaptation of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet – which, when premiering at the Sydney festival in 1998, included meal breaks. And it is from Armfield, the former co-creative director of Adelaide festival with Rachel Healy, that the festival’s current chief executive, Kath M Mainland, has inherited this production.

Mainland, who saw the Edinburgh festival production earlier this year, described it as “harrowing, compelling, beautiful and grotesque”.

“I adored the book [but] perhaps adore is the wrong word,” she said. “It’s a harrowing, compelling, epic story told in a compelling, epic way and I think Van Hove’s production takes all of that quite beautifully on to the stage. I think it’s an amazing thing that we’re able to bring this production to audiences in Australia.”

Faithful Adelaide festival audiences will be familiar with Van Hove’s work: in 2014 his Roman Tragedies kept audiences enthralled for six hours, while in 2018 his theatrical centrepiece for the festival, Kings of War, was an ambitious amalgam of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI, Henry VII and Richard III, assessed by the Guardian as a “stunning marathon” that nevertheless fell slightly short of its mark.

Possibly as a response to the Covid-19 pandemic that compressed and obliterated many arts festivals in Australia over the past two years, works on an epic scale are a feature of next year’s Adelaide offerings. The festival has already announced a choreographed production of Verdi’s Messa da Requiem, directed by German choreographer Christian Spuck and featuring a cast of hundreds.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will also be in full force for the festival’s free opening night concert, featuring the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander all-female choir Marliya.

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, from the director of the acclaimed production The Picture of Dorian Gray, Kip Williams, will head to Adelaide, as will the New Zealand musician Lorde, who will perform a one-off show at Adelaide Oval.

Other First Nations events include the world premiere of Ngapa William Cooper, written and composed by Lior, Nigel Westlake, Lou Bennett and Sarah Gory; performances by didgeridoo virtuoso William Barton and rapper Barkaa; and Tracker, a dance show from Wiradjuri choreographer Daniel Riley exploring the life of his great-great-uncle Alec “Tracker” Riley. The festival will also include Jurrungu Ngan-ga (“straight talk”), Marrugeku’s work confronting Indigenous incarceration that was programmed for the 2022 Sydney festival but pulled out at the 11th hour over the Israeli sponsorship controversy.

Also expected to generate controversy is the Dogs of Europe production by theatre company-in-exile, Belarus Free Theatre, a casualty of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

The production, which played at London’s Barbican earlier this year, was hailed as “art, activism and theatrical disruption” and included a direct address to the audience by the director at the conclusion of the performance about what Britain could – and should – be doing in response to the Russian invasion.


Kelly Burke

The GuardianTramp

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