By Aline Mahrud
WORTH A LOOK?: ***
WHEN?: Saturday 8 April (matinee), runs through 5 August 2023 RUNTIME: 220 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)
It’s hard for us to appreciate the popularity of this play because it is based on a best-selling 2015 book by Hanya Yanigihara we’ve not read and stars a much in-demand actor we’re not especially a fan of.
- Read on for reasons including how this play is perhaps too reverential to its source material
You join us in New York at an unspecified time in its history where our protagonist Jude is friends with aspiring actor Willem, artist JB and architect working at a prestigious firm, Malcolm.
Jude is enigmatic, walks with a limp and occasionally uses a wheelchair and it is only later we discover he was injured while being run over in a car driven by a former lover and suffered years of child abuse at the hands of the brothers in the monastery where he grew up.
Norton (Belleville, Donmar) has a great deal of work to do to convey Jude’s pain which manifests itself in self-harming including frequent cutting, starving himself and even burning his hand when trying to keep a promise to Willem not to take a knife to himself.
Much has been made of Norton’s full-frontal nudity and we were surprised that Luke Thompson’s (Netflix’s Bridgerton) Willem also goes full frontal as he becomes romantically involved with Jude and they embark on a sexual relationship that was always going to be a challenge to both of them given Jude’s history.
We find director Ivo van Hove’s (The Human Voice, Harold Pinter Theatre) work often challenging and here the dream-like nature of the material as characters overlap with each other with Norton’s Jude at the centre actually works well with the filmed New York street scenes projected against Jude’s apartment wall, spartan set and live string quartet giving the theatrical experience a very celluloid feel.
Omari Douglas (Cabaret, Playhouse Theatre) is 1 of our favourite stage actors currently and his JB is at times infuriating and unsympathetic and reinforces what a strong ensemble surrounds Norton’s very central role.
However, for us there is a relentless misery about this production and, when things do appear to be brightening, there is a twist which felt unnecessary.
This production has been so popular that it transfers from the Harold Pinter to the Savoy Theatre to conclude its run this summer. We find it hard to believe because it is not a story we warmed to, would choose to read or would ever imagine would be so popular.
The issues the story raises are hugely relevant and important but we found little depth in Norton’s rather static central performance with which we could empathise.
Thompson’s Willem was actually much stronger and his chest cutting in response to Jude’s mutilations – to make Jude feel how Jude is making him feel – was devastating.
Elsewhere the recently Olivier Award-winning Zubin Varla (Tammy Faye, Almeida) made much of Jude’s adoptive father figure and Nathalie Armin (Force Majeure, Donmar) is very affecting as the ghostly presence of Jude’s therapist.
Jude’s plight might have been more engaging with a stronger actor but to us Norton just felt a little lost with so much plot to explain.
With an advertised runtime of 3 hours and 40 minutes, this Ivo van Hove production looked inventive but felt too long and perhaps just too reverential to that best-selling book as source material.