‘It’s intense’: Ivo van Hove and Jan Versweyveld on bringing ‘Une petite vie’ to BAM
It is disconcerting to realize that Hanya Yanagihara’s best-selling novel A little life came out over seven years ago, given the ironclad grip it maintains on the culture. A 750-page epic about pain, friendship, the evolution of homosexuality, exploitation and shame following the lives of four college friends, its operatic ups and downs inspired a constant discourse, fueled as much by praise for its astonishing prose and scope as by condemnation of its graphic depictions of childhood sexual abuse and self-harm. Atlantic called him “the great gay novel”; The New York Book Review the judge “a striptease” pejoratively.
Love it or hate it, the 2015 tome left an immediate and indelible mark. “Not a contemporary classic [but] an instant classic,” as director Ivo van Hove points out. “It was never a new novel. He instantly became like a mythical figure, which is strange when you think about it. It’s about horrific things – the structural violence and sexual abuse of a seven-year-old boy through the age of 50 and the brutal and lifelong consequences of that trauma. How can it attract so many people?
Known in the United States for his divisive Broadway adaptations of landmarks like the crucible, West Side Storyand Network, the Dutch theater maker has now brought his take on Yanagihara’s novel to BAM for a limited release. First premiered in 2018 with his company Toneelgroep Amsterdam in the Netherlands before a brief stint in Edinburgh, the production, which lasts just over four hours, had to overcome a number of hurdles before coming together. The first: getting van Hove and her husband and longtime collaborator, set designer Jan Versweyveld, to believe the hype.
“I thought, Well, another gay story…why?” jokes van Hove. “I did not care.” But after enough friends convinced him to read it, his opinion changed overnight, as did that of Versweyveld, who wondered how his story, which spans decades and continents, could possibly be translated into the minimalist, lively aesthetic they are now known for.
“The book gets under your skin, and what I knew was that a central piece of the set design should be something that relates to Jude as a character,” says Versweyveld, zoning in on the main character of the book. and the bearer of much of his trauma. “At a very early stage, we decided that the central part of the scene would be the skin – a large piece of human-colored skin that conveys [Jude’s] vulnerability.”