Omari Douglas on the polarising phenomenon of 'A Little Life': “Trauma doesn’t always have a happy ending”
Few books in recent times have left readers as polarised as Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life. The Booker-shortlisted, 700-page novel has been branded 'torture porn' by some, and a lauded classic by others. Omari Douglas, who stars alongside Happy Valley’s James Norton in the West End version opening on 25 March, says no one is obliged to see the show or read the book. Perhaps, he adds, before balking at its darkness, we would be wise to remember that not all stories of trauma have fairy-tale endings – as much as we might want them to.
“This is a story about trauma and trauma is something you either choose to face or look away from,” he tells us. “There’s a harsh truth to those themes that are hard to witness and that’s why people struggle with it. You don’t have to engage with this; you don’t have to read the book if it’s distressing to you or making you feel angry. Put it down, read something else. The same goes for the show.”
Since its release in 2015, A Little Life has sold more than two million copies around the world, and everyone has an opinion on it. There are the super fans: those who have bought the merch, or gone one step further and had a tattoo dedicated to the characters. But there are also those who find its harrowing themes of trauma, pain and suffering too much, gratuitous even. The Dutch theatre version caused audience members to faint, yet the London iteration still sold out in minutes. “I think perhaps sometimes we feel we’re owed a particular narrative and ending, or a way through a story,” says Douglas. “Hanya doesn’t do that. She took the reins off with this book and said, ‘I want to tell this story in this way. I want it to be unapologetic.’ It isn’t unapologetic for the sake of it. Trauma doesn’t necessarily have a happy ending, and perhaps that’s what some people expect. When people don’t get the ending they want, they feel cheated.”
The celebrated Belgian director Ivo van Hove is behind the new theatre production, which interprets the story of four friends – Jude, Willem, JB and Malcolm – who meet at university and move to New York, where they all enjoy successful careers as a lawyer, actor, artist and architect, respectively. While the book follows the paths of all four men, it hones in on Jude (Norton), who has suffered almost unimaginable (although certainly not impossible) abuse as a child and latterly as an adult. The book looks at the extent to which love and friendship can help heal severe trauma and the entire theatre company were provided with resources to help them to deal with the text’s dark themes. Applause For Thought, a mental-health organisation that offers services and tools to those working in the arts and entertainment industry, was enlisted. A psychotherapist was, and still is, available for anyone – whether the cast or stage management or front of house. “We’ve been really well looked after,” says Douglas. “It’s necessary, particularly as we’re having these more open, overdue conversations about how to make these processes work.”
Douglas has had a busy few years, professionally. Although he had appeared in multiple theatre productions since leaving drama school in 2015, his breakout role came in 2021 with Russell T Davies’ critically acclaimed show It’s A Sin – about a group of friends living through the AIDs epidemic in London during the 1980s. “Never did I expect it to have such international impact, culturally and socially,” he says. “It raised not only historic issues, but also present issues that we’re dealing with now in terms of HIV awareness. I’m really proud of that, because you can never ask or expect that your work could have that kind of engagement.”
Next came a theatre role in a queer retelling of Constellations alongside Russell Tovey, for which he was given a prestigious Olivier Award; he subsequently took on the role of Clifford Bradshaw in an award-winning, buzzy production of Cabaret alongside Eddie Redmayne and Jessie Buckley. The musical opened in late 2021 when the pandemic was still creating problems, yet the show was an undisputed success. “It was an iffy time for theatre and none of us knew if it would sink or swim,” admits Douglas. “I think Cabaret proved that if a classic is reignited in the right way, people will engage.”
In 2022, he was cast in the second season of Billie Piper’s acclaimed I Hate Suzie Too, and was heavily pipped to be be the new Dr Who. Although he ultimately lost out to Ncuti Gatwa, the fact that he was even in the running is a sign of his star rising. Beyond A Little Life, forthcoming projects include Midas Man, a biopic about Beatles manager Brian Epstein. Douglas will play his confidante and friend, Lonnie Trimble. It’s been a hugely gratifying, yet “overwhelming” few years for the actor, who took a break late last year to recoup.
“No one ever imagines this sort of trajectory,” he says. “In the last six months to a year, I’ve had some stark conversations with people around me about the realities of being in this different realm that you can’t ever prepare yourself for. The tonic for it all is knowing how to look after yourself and having the right support network around you.”
For now, A Little Life is taking up a lot of his life. He’s been in rehearsals since early February and its initial 12-week run has been extended by an additional month due to popular demand. “There’s a stark relatability to friendship in this story, which is why I think so many people have felt this affinity to it,” he says. “The dynamic between the friends, particularly friends who work in creative fields, has been really confronting for me. Nothing is shied away from in the book, and that goes for the production, too. It touches on stuff that we choose to look away from. Whoever watches it will have an incredible experience.”
A Little Life is at the Harold Pinter Theatre, from 25 March - 18 June and at Savoy Theatre, from 4 July - 5 August.
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