Rose theatre, Kingston upon Thames
Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack ignite April De Angelis’s five-hour staging of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan saga
What a nerve. To think that Elena Ferrante’s transfixing novels could take another form. To imagine that these tales of female friendship, Neapolitan life, political strife and personal independence could be adapted. For a Ferrante addict, the story of Lenù and Lila – which one are you? – is not a fictional feat but something more internal: part of the reader’s own memory.
And yet. Against the odds, adapter April De Angelis and director Melly Still have pulled off their dramatisation in My Brilliant Friend. There are absences and some awkwardness, but the essence of the books – intensity – wins through.
Ferrante is subtle but not delicate. Her plot is boldly coloured. Her timescale is long, from 1944 to 2010. Her saga is full but fractured: changes of love, mind and behaviour are not, any more than in life, always fully accounted for. De Angelis and Still give us quick scenes on Soutra Gilmour’s uncluttered design. Naples is there in the huge bed sheets waved from iron balconies. The earthquake is conjured by a whirl of light and a ripping of paper. Crucially, a marvellous string of musical numbers winds through the action, providing a timeline that beautifully bridges inner and outer landscapes. Lazzarella gives way to Where the Boys Are and Purple Haze. The five-hour, two-part epic begins and ends with the most searching of laments: Dido’s. Her plea could serve as a motto for Ferrante’s vital enterprise: “Remember me, but forget my fate.”
Adaptation is reinvention. Some important episodes are not explicit here but translated: Lila’s recurring feeling that she is dissolving is suggested in changes of light, shifts in movement. The only substantial loss is in the treatment of political engagement. Nino, the intermittent lover of both women, is a slippery sod: opportunist and plausible, but seductive. Not as clever as he thinks, but stimulating. Toby Wharton turns him into a chump who makes all political theory sound merely academic and absurd, comic relief rather than something with the power to stir.
The two leads power the evening through. What casting! Catherine McCormackhas the essential quality for Lila. An insouciant – almost negligent – originality. She has the restless intelligence of an artist. That is a constant. Yet her guises are always changing. At one moment she is the swankiest person on stage, in big shades and a gauzy headscarf à la Sophia Loren. At the next, she is the most woebegone: gaunt and rawboned, hauling the carcass of a skinned animal across a factory floor.
Niamh Cusack brings her lit-up intensity to Lenù, the narrator. She is the achiever, the girl who uses cleverness to escape poverty, dialect, family, thuggery. Yet she is also in anxious thrall to her friend, both envious and admiring. Cusack glows, explodes like a maenad, suggests someone whose heart is in a knot. Cleverly the plays end with Lenù as author, signing books that contain her account of what we have just seen. For a moment it is as if the elusive Ferrante has materialised in front of us.