Hanya Yanagihara novel heads to London stage

November 23, 2022 3:48 pm

Left to right: Zach Wyatt (who will play Malcolm), James Norton (Jude), Omari Douglas (JB) and Luke Thompson (Willem). [Source: BBC]

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.

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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.”