Last year, the playwright April De Angelis gave her book group a copy of My Brilliant Friend to read. The novel was the first in a quartet by Italian author Elena Ferrante, charting an intense 50 year female friendship, and was already a publishing sensation.
De Angelis had read it some months previously and instantly fallen in love. But not all her fellow readers were convinced.
“It split the group a little bit,” says De Angelis when we meet in the lobby of the British Library in London. “It’s quite a difficult account of female friendship and some people don’t like that.”
Her own reaction was “obviously to try and be generous and not just say to them – ‘you’re stupid!’” She catches herself, then laughs.
The Ferrante novels tend to split people into two camps: either you don’t get what all the fuss is about and stop half-way through the first instalment, or you love them with an all-consuming, protective, fire-breathing passion. De Angelis falls into the latter set and has now adapted the four books for the stage; the first time anyone has done so.
The story charts the course of their entwined life: from a shared childhood in an impoverished Naples neighbourhood, through to adulthood with its passionate love affairs, burgeoning careers and complex family struggles. De Angelis has crunched the Neapolitan novels into a little over four hours and the two parts can be seen on the same day, or separately.
Ferrante’s novels, written over three years from 2012, have sold well over a million copies worldwide and been translated into 27 languages. Along the way, they have been heaped with critical and popular acclaim. The New York Times Book Review has called Ferrante, “one of the great novelists of our time” and her devoted fans include everyone from Gwyneth Paltrow to Zadie Smith.
What makes her success even more dazzling is that Ferrante writes under a pseudonym and has never given an interview in person, only ever answering questions in writing.
De Angelis is no exception.
“I bloody hate him,” she says of Gatti. “He’s trying to control how a woman should be. She’s deliberately – for artistic reasons – chosen not to be known.
“It’s not hiding something or being deceptive. It’s her right not to say who she is. It’s a creative act to write under another name because it gives you freedom as a woman; to assume another identity and to step out of your own head.”
It is the same argument put forward by other women who have written under pseudonyms and been unmasked. Indeed, JK Rowling – who penned The Cuckoo’s Calling as Robert Galbraith in 2013 said that she was yearning “to work without hype or expectation and to receive totally unvarnished feedback… I certainly wanted to take my writing persona as far away as possible from me.”
De Angelis believes that what makes Ferrante so compelling as a writer is her refusal to respect traditional boundaries. Her depiction of a lifelong female friendship does not shy away from uncomfortable truths: Lenu and Lila both love and hate each other. They are defined by their passion as much as their enmity – and often they act in brutal, unforgivable ways.
“It doesn’t fit into the sentimental idea of female friendship,” explains De Angelis. “It’s really quite transgressive because she writes about all the stuff that is meant to be kept out of the official account of what it is to be a woman.”
In her novels, Ferrante gives clear-eyed descriptions of both menstruation and pregnancy (which, at one point, is compared to having an “alien” growing inside you).
One of the big debates around the stage adaptation, says De Angelis, was whether to keep in such visceral descriptions. For the most part, she did, a decision that the director called “brave.”
“But Ferrante was brave!” says De Angelis. “She put the female body at the centre.” Besides, she continues, that is how women actually talk to each other. “There are thoughts you can share safely when you’re with other women and some of the stuff that comes out is fabulous.” De Angelis sips her coffee. “Would life be worth living without female friends? Probably not.”
I thought it was the most fabulous thing ever. A real Ferrante word! Now I just want to use it all the time in my daily conversation.
De Angelis, who lives in Walthamstow, east London, was not in regular contact with Ferrante while she was adapting the books. She had read all four in late 2015 and loved them, describing them as the literary equivalent of “a TV box-set”.
She and her husband, Evan Marshall, a television producer, had just been on holiday to Naples and were in the process of learning Italian (De Angelis is half Sicilian), so there was a special serendipity to discovering the Neapolitan novels at that particular time.
Then, in mid-December that year, De Angelis received an email out of the blue from her agent asking her if she had any interest in adapting the Ferrante novels for The Rose Theatre.
“It was my dream job,” she says. In the end, she had to write the whole thing – from the 1,600 pages of the English translations – in just three months. “It was a crazy timescale. It’s all been a bit headlong but sometimes it’s good to have that pressure.”
This is not the first time De Angelis has adapted a much-loved novel – her previous works include Frankenstein and Wuthering Heights. She originally trained as an actress, attending the East 15 theatre school after Sussex University, but recalls being “constantly nagged” by an inner voice telling her to write.
The difference with her past adaptations was, of course, that the authors were no longer around to pass comment.
Ferrante had to give her blessing for the first draft of My Brilliant Friend the play, “which was terrifying [but] she came back and said ‘Fine, I agree with it’ and she gave me one note which was amazing. She said ‘Don’t be too oneiric.’”
I stare at De Angelis blankly.
“I had to look it up,” she laughs. “It means, ‘dream-like’, from the Greek ‘to dream’. I thought it was the most fabulous thing ever. A real Ferrante word! Now I just want to use it all the time in my daily conversation.”
No doubt her legions of other fans will feel just the same way.