The Neopolitan Novels on Stage – My Brilliant Friend.
My Brilliant Friend (Parts One and Two) is a much-anticipated production which brings to the stage the wildly popular Neapolitan Novels written by novelist Elena Ferrante. Devotees of the Italian author who writes under a pseudonym – her identity was ‘outed’ by a journalist in 2016 – can now immerse themselves in a two-part play at the National Theatre. Each section runs close to three hours, the drama encompassing the whole quartet of sizeable novels published in English between 2012 and 2015.
While the Neopolitan Novels garnered huge critical acclaim and an army of readers – it has sold over 10 million copies – it is still possible to find the odd person who has not read any of Ferrante’s oeuvre. I took one such companion along to My Brilliant Friend, wondering whether the play could successfully stand alone if one had no prior knowledge of the narrative. I was curious too about how the adaptation would deal with the large number of characters who comprise the community within which the protagonists live, not to mention the time frame (1952 – 2011) and the political, social and economic issues that are discussed in such detail in the four books.
My Brilliant Friend is the title of the first of the four novels and tells the story of Lila and Lenù, children growing up in a poor neighbourhood of 1950’s Naples. Two bright girls whose ongoing education beyond primary school is in doubt, they form a very close bond which Ferrante explores with all the complexities, jealousies, love and support, betrayals and triumphs that inhabit female friendships. In the background are their families where violence, emotional disinhibition, machismo and poverty play out in the shadow of the Camorra. Post-war Italian politics, retribution for support of Fascism, the rising tide of the worker’s movement, feminism and the role of the intelligentsia all come into play while Lila and Lenù marry, divorce, grow distant and yet are forever attached.
A very bold quartet of novels to adapt for the stage, April De Angelis has created a fast-paced and dynamic adaptation that manages to incorporate the broad themes without losing the intimacy of the friendship between Lila and Lenù. Naturally, some of the nuance and detail of the novels is lost in My Brilliant Friend, but my companion had no difficulty following the narrative while I relished the depiction on stage of some of my favourite scenes from the four books.
The plays were first performed in 2017 at the Rose Theatre and have transferred to a larger stage at the Olivier. The director, Melly Still, has brought a vibrancy to the production using music and dance interludes to change scenes. The very simple set (designed by Soutra Gilmour) is a series of moveable staircases which are effectively interconnected to create a chaotic neighbourhood where families live on top of one another in apartment blocks. The set later transforms to become a school, the seaside, a factory as well as an apartment in Florence but is at its most poignant when Lila and Lenù attempt to escape their ‘plebian’ community, culminating at the top of the stairs in a literal dead end.
The use of the back of the stage as a vast screen was effective in adding context to some of the scenes ranging from Latin conjugation at school to a meat stripping factory and political events as they unfolded through the decades. It was particularly evocative during the wedding scene – a pivotal chapter in the second novel, The Story of a New Name – where the projection depicts the violent fantasies of Lila’s unravelling psyche. Pop music was used throughout to provide further cultural references as the decades slipped by. The simplest of props provided some entertaining moments such as the two car lights carried by the Solara brothers who cruise menacingly around the neighbourhood. Puppetry was well deployed in Part One to convey appalling violence that was disembodied rather than enacted on the actors. In Part Two puppetry was used to depict two infants growing into toddlers. While I found this to be a distracting device at times, it enabled a complex part of the narrative to be revealed.
Being hungry for the dialogue from the novels to come to life in My Brilliant Friend, I preferred the scenes where the characters conversed rather than those that were more musical, yet the latter did manage to compress page upon page of text into colourful tableaux thereby portraying the panoply of characters in the neighbourhood.
While I had my own imagined vision of Lila and Lenù, I was quickly absorbed by Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack’s powerful performances. They transformed from playing two young girls through adolescence and into young adulthood and beyond. Their complex bond was played with conviction, sensitivity and humour. The two women seemed stuck forever in a spiral of violence, machismo, misogyny and stunted opportunity. Except that Lila’s brilliant mind provided Lenù with the inspiration to write her way out of their trapped lives. The question of who is, in fact, the brilliant friend is played back and forth with Lenù constantly feeling like an impostor.
The rest of the cast – most played a couple of characters – was strong. Melina Cappucino (Amiera Darwish) was suitable unhinged; the Solara brothers (Ira Mandela Siobahn and Adam Burton) were wonderfully sinister albeit perhaps a bit too entertaining considering the violence with which they controlled the neighbourhood. Pietro Airota (Justin Avoth) and Nino Sarratore (Ben Turner), the yin and yang of Lenù’s affections, conveyed their common selfish concern about their own careers while portraying the bumbling professor and arrogant intellectual respectively.
An excellent essay by Michelle Tarnopolsky in the comprehensive programme provides an historical overview of the position of women in Italian society which even today remains relatively unadvanced. Ferrante writes passionately about the position of women as possessions of violent or entitled men which is brought to the stage in some shocking scenes.
The mood was darker in Part Two as politics moved centre stage with workers and students mobilising and facing attack by the Fascist supporting mafia. The stage was filled with violence and destruction, round after round of retribution that ends not only in bloodshed but unbearable loss.
Cusack and McCormack’s performances were even more magnetic in Part Two, circling one another, their relationship growing more complex as they aged. Cusack quietly commanded the stage, frustrated in her domestic role that thwarts her writing, compromised in her marriage, guilty about leaving her children for a lover of dubious intentions, angry and envious of Lila with whom she is bonded like a sister. McCormack inhabited the spirit of Lila, portraying her fearless, sometimes reckless, opposition to the Camorra and later steely and calculating in her compromise with their power which she used to advance her own ends. She was both invincible and very vulnerable as her mental health deteriorated.
Lila and Lenù are both enthralled and ensnared. It is as if they share a life force. It is this sister-like relationship that creates a particular rivalry which runs deeper than it might in any commonplace friendship between women. Lenù needs Lila’s life to inspire her novels – in that sense, Lila is her muse – while Lila needs Lenù to succeed in living a better, educated life for them both. The mutual envy inevitably has destructive consequences for both women. While Lila admires Lenù’s success as a writer she also diminishes her work. ‘In fairytales, you do what you like, in life what you can’, she says scornfully to Lenù.
Lenù suffers from impostor syndrome as do so many women who struggle to believe in their own voices. She is acutely aware that she is telling both her story and Lila’s. She says that she wrote about Lila’s life to give her a form whose boundaries would not dissolve. But she writes about Lila also so as to advance her own success as a novelist. When asked for her own opinion about the Vietnam War she says she has none. Lila always has an opinion. Lenù’s fame is built on Lila’s pain. It is as if they are two sides of a whole – Lila lives the experiences that Lenù writes about. Lenù consumes Lila and is consumed by her.
The play depicts the novels’ concerns about psychological boundaries and their dissolution. The symbiotic relationship between Lila and Lenù results in a boundarilessness between them. They inhabit one another, enliven and destroy one another. In the end, only one survives to tell the tale but Lila lives on whether as a disembodied spirit or in Lenù’s imagination.
At the end of Part Two, the audience rose to its feet to applaud the cast. Two lengthy nights at the theatre were well rewarded by a strong cast, two complex and compelling performances from the lead actors and a convincing and dynamic adaptation of four captivating novels.
My Brilliant Friend, Parts One and Two is on at the National Theatre until 22 February 2020
Also showing at The National Theatre is Three Sisters – check our review.
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