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Ivo van Hove – A Little Life

Ivo van Hove initially resisted reading A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara’s 2015 novel. This despite the Belgian theatre director being gifted the book twice by friends, who declared Yanagihara’s 814-page epic was something definitely for him.


Van Hove was familiar with A Little Life’s success, and presumed Yanagihara’s story of four friends in New York to be a gay rites of passage. Being given the book twice, however, piqued his curiosity. When he eventually opened it, he discovered the novel’s apparent premise to be a sucker punch that opened out onto an altogether more troubling world, in which one of the friends, Jude, a man emotionally and physically damaged to a self-destructive degree, becomes the book’s central focus. 


I couldn't stop reading it,” van Hove says. “It's the book that you don't want to read but you cannot stop, and you know it's going to end terribly, but you still can’t stop.” 


When Van Hove applied for the rights to stage Yanagihara’s story, a third copy of the book turned up, this time from its author, whose hand written message spoke of how she would be ‘deeply honoured’ if van Hove were to dramatise it. Despite this affirmation, and despite van Hove and Yanagihara becoming friends, it took time to convince her to let go of her book. Eventually, van Hove couldn’t wait any longer.


“I said, Hanya, I understand this is your baby,” van Hove recalls. “I'm gonna’ take your baby away from you, and I'm gonna’ raise it perhaps in a different way that you are happy with, or that you would do yourself, but you have to make a decision. Can you allow me to do this or not? And she said yes.”


The result was van Hove’s 2018 Dutch-language production for his Internationaal Theater Amsterdam (ITA), which forms the centrepiece of a three-show residency by the company at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival. Given van Hove’s unflinching approach to his work, brought to Edinburgh most recently in 2015 by way of his productions of Antigone, starring Juliette Binoche, audiences should steel themselves for a visceral and at times discomforting experience.


“The book is about the structural and violent abuse of an under aged boy, who is traumatised for the rest of his life,” says van Hove. “That's the grim, dark story, but what I think very attractive to a lot of people is that it also has some hope. Because this guy Jude is surrounded by three of the best friends in the world, who, all for different reasons, are people that really care for him, and who are almost never selfish. They always think of him, and try to understand him, which is impossible, because his pain is so deep.”


Van Hove relates the importance of friendship in A Little Life to an incident in his youth.


“I lost my best friend when I was fifteen or sixteen. It was a stupid accident, he fell down with his with his bike 200 metres from his house. For me, and I only understood this afterwards, I was in mourning for a whole year. I tried to talk about this to one person, who really tried his best to console me and to take care of me, but I got angry about it because I thought this was not solvable, and all these terrible things came out. That was only a year, but with Jude, it's his whole life, surrounded by his best friends trying to help him, and it’s heartbreaking.”


The emotional power of A Little Life stayed with van Hove, even while watching a live film feed of the show.


“I cried three times,” he says. “I never cry at my own productions, because I know  exactly how I made it. I know every trick I used. So I didn’t cry because of the production, but because of what it talks about. It makes you cry that somebody is so helpless in his life that this trauma, which was caused so early in his life, caused a lifelong death sentence.”


It is hope, again, however, that van Hove believes gives A Little Life its power.


“It is this beautiful ambivalent text about life and death, about trauma, and the reality of life ending into death,” he says, “but it also touches something essentially human, even when it's quite extreme.”


Van Hove points to Pablo Picasso’s anti war painting, Guernica, to illustrate this. 


“When you look at Guernica,” he says, “it's all war. There is no hope there. Sometimes it's good to look at the black painting to know what we have. Sometimes it's good to see the opposite of that to experience our real happiness.”


Edinburgh International Festival @ Festival Theatre, August 20-21, 6pm; August 22, 2pm. Running time, 4 hours and 10 minutes.

The List, July 2022 -




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