By Steven McIntosh
A novel which developed a passionate following among young audiences will be adapted for the stage in a new West End production starring James Norton.
A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara, follows four classmates from a small US college who move to New York to pursue their careers. It deals with complex themes including abuse, race, privilege, sexuality, friendship and addiction.
The novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize 2015. It did not win, but became a word-of-mouth hit after striking a chord with younger people – something which can rarely be said for the kinds of books normally shortlisted for the prestigious literature prize.
A Little Life’s devoted fanbase includes singer Dua Lipa, who interviewed Yanagihara for her podcast, telling her the book had “changed her life”.
The stage adaptation will play for 12 weeks at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London from 25 March. The West End premiere will mark the show’s English-language debut – its director Ivo van Hove has previously only staged it in Dutch.
“The book is a kind of a mystery, because it became a huge bestseller,” he tells BBC News. “It’s a little bit strange because it talks about cruel things, about a traumatic experience that haunts somebody for the rest of his life.”
“But after all these years, every night, theatres are full, people are moved, sometimes angry, but it creates a very visceral reaction towards it.”
Sales of the novel, Yanagihara’s second, were modest following its publication – but it gradually became popular via word-of-mouth, ultimately selling more than 2.5 million copies. (For context, the author’s 2013 debut, The People in the Trees, had sold only a few thousand copies.)
The stage adaptation of A Little Life will star Norton – who is known for McMafia and Happy Valley – alongside It’s A Sin star Omari Douglas, Bridgerton’s Luke Thompson and The Witcher’s Zach Wyatt.
The Dutch version played four performances (with English surtitles) at the Edinburgh Festival this year. It enjoyed warm reviews from critics, despite its often grim subject matter.
The Telegraph awarded it five stars, saying in its review: “This devastating play is emotionally gruelling. But that doesn’t detract from how transfixing and heartrending it is.”
There was agreement from the Guardian, which described the play as “mesmerising” in its four-star review, but added: “This is not a show for the faint-hearted.”
Some critics also noted that the four-hour runtime could put off ticket-buyers.
Van Hove says the West End version will be slightly shorter, at 3hrs 40mins, but points out there is so much material to reproduce. “The book is 720 pages,” he points out, “but it is a page-turner.”
Norton, Douglas, Thompson and Wyatt will play the four friends at the centre of the book – prodigious lawyer Jude, struggling artist JB, aspiring actor Willem, and successful architect Malcolm, respectively.
“I think I have a very good team of actors,” says van Hove. “I really took my time to talk to people, do auditions, because it’s very intense to play it, and I hope I have found a group that can trust each other.”
I am afraid to say that I approached Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life with trepidation. A 720-page doorstopper of a book by a writer I had not come across.
I devoured this story of four male friends living in New York and the dark secrets of child abuse and self-harm in the life of one of them, Jude.
Yanagihara certainly makes her characters suffer. Drink, drugs, rape and amputation also feature.
“The book is not cheerful,” she told me when I interviewed her in 2015 when the novel was shortlisted for the Booker Prize. “But I hope it doesn’t feel like a piling on of miseries for the sake of misery.”
Some readers, I am well aware, may find A Little Life oppressive and depressing. At times it is melodramatic too.
But for me, it was an immersive and intimate reading experience. “I did want it to feel like a walled garden, a place that you couldn’t get out of,” said Yanagihara.
And I thought one of the book’s great strengths was its depiction of the interior lives of the characters. Yanagihara takes you deeply into the thoughts and feelings of the mysterious Jude and his friends Willem, Malcolm and JB.
So I am intrigued to see how that can be reproduced in the theatre.
When we spoke a stage adaptation was not on the cards, but Yanagihara did tell me she did not think A Little Life could “exist” as a film.
But, she revealed: “I would love to have it made as a mini-series. I think a middle aged Jude would be very good with Christian Bale in the role. But I also like the American actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt.”
Van Hove says it is his “dream” to stage the play in English, adding: “I’m really looking forward to seeing how it will work when it’s in the original language, that’s a prospect that I cannot wait to start.”
Yanagihara says she is “thrilled” that the production was heading to London, describing it as having “the most extraordinary cast I could have hoped for”.
Given the book tapped into a younger demographic, does van Hove expect the play will attract larger numbers of the young people theatre sometimes struggles to reach?
“That happened actually when we did it in Amsterdam,” he replies, “a lot of young people came to it.” Van Hove recalls the reaction of some young actors he was working with when they found out he was involved.
“I was doing West Side Story and there were a lot of people who were 17 or 18 in the cast, and lots of them were reading the book,” he remembers. “When they discovered I had done it they almost fainted.
“It has the potential to attract a diversity of people, because the cast is also culturally diverse – it’s very close to the book.”