My Brilliant Friend at the National Theatre
The task of translating Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan Novels onto the stage was always going to be a difficult undertaking. The average reader might space the books out over a month or more, letting the lives of Lila and Lenu gradually unfold from childhood to old age across the politically and socially detailed landscape of Naples. The two-part show My Brilliant Friend, lasting over five hours in total, manages to put across the tensions of the girls’ relationship and the frenetic, messy stories of the neighbourhood, but the intimate interior monologue of the books’ narrator, Lenu, and something of her closeness with Lila, are lost in this new form.
Surely there’s no better stage in London upon which to serve up the sprawl of post-war Naples, its squalor and splendour, and the stories of generations emerging from it, than the vast Olivier. Soutra Gilmour’s set is one of constant transition: monolithic staircases are spun this way and that, and a backdrop of screens bring abstract texture to each scene. Director Melly Still swarms the space with characters, a tangle of lives, vivified by movement and slow-mo and singing and puppetry. She allows the story to resonate into the English-speaking world with the addition of soundbites: Germaine Greer on feminism and President Bush on his friendship with Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi.
April De Angelis’ adaptation of the text manages to pack down four dense books, but misses out so many of the philosophical ideas that characterise the novels: Lenu’s realisation that she has spent her education attempting to make her mind male, for example. Occasionally some clarity is lost and we can’t be sure whether we’re watching Lenu’s fantasy or real life.
The stage adaptation shines, however, in its reordering of events. Whereas the novels are more or less linear (the faithful and meticulous laying down of a friend’s memory), the show uses a few significant moments to anchor in time. A stunning repeated moment sees a wretched adult Lila throw the book she wrote as a child, The Blue Fairy, into the fire at the factory where she works. Flames engulf the walls, along with snatches of illustrations.
Niamh Cusack is an earnest, naive Lenu, becoming still more relatable as she slips into Neapolitan “dialect” (denoted by a sweary Irish accent). Catherine McCormack as Lila isn’t always consistent, starting out with a working-class accent which is later dropped despite the fact that the character never enters the bourgeoisie as Lenu does. The rest of the multi-character-juggling cast is strong; the colour and age blind casting is laudable.
This sprawling, seething play does sterling service to Ferrante’s novel series. But it’s also proof that hers is a story best served by the intimacy and specificity of the written word. Anything else can only be a shadow, albeit a very beautiful one.
Photo: Marc Brenner
My Brilliant Friend is at the National Theatre from 26th November until 22nd February 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.