Ferrante fever reignites as April de Angelis’s stage adaptation comes to the National Theatre's Olivier stage after a sell-out opening at the Rose Theatre, Kingston in 2017. To squeeze four novels worth of narrative into a play is no mean feat: it’s a big story, sprawling over two parts, which total almost 6 hours. You can watch parts one and two from matinee or evening or stagger the performances across separate evenings. Either way it’s a commitment.
While the 60 year time span of the Neapolitan novels is epic, it’s the intimacy of Ferrante’s prose and the vividly-wrought Naples neighbourhood that are hardest to capture. An HBO TV adaptation of My Brilliant Friend relied on close ups and exquisite lavish shots of Italian streets.
Catherine McCormack, Niamh Cusack in My Brilliant Friend Part 1. Photo by Marc Brenner
Director Melly Still imaginatively overcomes the practical issues of staging violence and the passage of time, but the production doesn’t manage to take you inside its characters’ heads. We remain fascinated, but miss the connection and emotional intensity that comes in the books. Instead it's the brutality that is most striking in this production, as domestic spaces, public streets and political concepts all reverberate with hostility to women.
We follow Lenù (Niamh Cusack) and Lila (Catherine McCormack) from their 1950s childhood deep into adulthood. They make a pact to overcome their impoverished upbringing: ‘Whatever we do, we do together and on purpose’. Their friendship strains and strengthens over 60 years as they face male oppression, motherhood, mobster rule, political revolution, the changing social landscape of post-war Italy.
Instead of changing actors to reflect the characters’ different ages, the production uses the same actors throughout, denoting shifts in time with blasts of 60s, 70s and 80s pop and costumes changing from shift dresses to flares to power suits.
Niamh Cusack, Catherine McCormack in My Brilliant Friend Part 1. Photo by Marc Brenner
First it is jarring to have adults gambolling around in smock dresses and lispily discussing dolls. But, when disbelief is suspended, it’s a shrewd idea. Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack fully inhabit Lenù and Lila in performances that show strength and stamina in equal measure.
McCormack is magnetic as a feral, fearless and fiercely intelligent Lila, brought to life with febrile energy. We see her caught in a cycle of violence - abusive father, brutal boyfriends, aggressive bosses - but never as a victim. And her friend's contrasting success and freedom is a source of resentment and immense pride.
Cusack is equally captivating as Lenù, balancing quiet watchfulness with a steely ambition. As her world expands with opportunities and Lila's shrinks into servitude, the balance of their friendship shifts. But even as fully fledged famous author Lenù, Cusack shows us a flicker of the child who lives in the shadow of her brilliant friend.
Together McCormack and Cusack capture the uneasy jealousy and deep devotion that powers female friendship. We may lose some of the arch ambivalence of Ferrante's prose, but this stage adaptation finds the theatricality with flair.
A scene from My Brilliant Friend Part 2. Photo by Marc Brenner
|What||My Brilliant Friend, National Theatre review|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
12 Nov 19 – 31 Jan 20, From 12 November
|Price||£15 - £85|
|Website||Click here for more information and tickets|