Elena Ferrante’s extraordinary quartet of novels about the passionate, treacherous friendship between two women in post-war Naples inspires masochistic behaviour among devotees. There are tales of readers skipping mealtimes, sleep, even social arrangements in order to gobble them up. So I suspect fans will shrug off the challenge of watching April de Angelis’s adaptation, which condenses the quartet into two two-and-a-half-hour shows that can be seen either on a single day or over two consecutive evenings. (This is not the sort of project in which it is not done to see only half. You are in for the long haul or not at all.)
So does it work? Namely, how do you put on stage the borderline narcissistic, relentless mono-perspective of these novels, each one an implacably interior account by a writer called Elena of her turbulent, decades-long relationship with her former school friend Lila? You don’t, is the answer.
Instead, de Angelis’s fleet, sleek adaptation breaks away from Elena’s omnipotent viewpoint to release all the cinematic drama seething beneath. This, in Melly Still’s noirish production, is The Sopranos by way of women’s lib, where slick-suited gangsters mingle at weddings, where communists fight with the fascists and where, amid the broiling violence and poverty, two intellectually precocious girls, Lila and Elena (known as Lenu) wrestle against both the gender expectations of their heavily circumscribed upbringing and the mythic ties of an impossible friendship in which both women are destined to fight forever against the shadow of the other.
There is something of an Italian Hedda Gabler about Catherine McCormack’s Lila, the uncontainable, self-sabotaging brilliant young girl who combines a “refusal to submit to reality” with a yearning for self annihilation. McCormack plays her with plenty of scorn and a streak of lethal nihilism – even as a seven-year-old, maliciously dropping Lenu’s favourite doll into a cellar, McCormack finds in her long-haired, bare-footed Lila a dead eyed fatalism, as though the character already knows how her story will turn out. The stench of clinical depression hangs over her like a cloud.
Niamh Cusack is less obvious casting as Lenu and, for Part One at least, is the bit player in Lila’s drama. Yet as the production grows, so does her performance. Unlike the more talented Lila, Lenu becomes a novelist but struggles to combine motherhood with her career. We are told throughout that Lenu is “good” but Cusack captures the softly monstrous ego behind Lenu’s seemingly placid surfaces – a writer who stealthily steals stories from both Lila’s life and imagination and who years later has to wrestle with whether an act of self promotion is the cause of an unspeakable loss.
Still’s muscular staging, in which a pop soundtrack eloquently tracks the changing years, beautifully summons the claustrophobic heat of downtown Naples, where washing hangs from iron balconies, wives fight like alleycats over husbands and business men are knifed in broad daylight.
It’s full, too, of moments of visual flair: when Lila is beaten up – by her dad; by her husband – she sheds her dress and the men pummel the empty cloth instead. For the most part, both play and production powerfully combine a shocking intimacy with a widescreen account of post-war Italian history. They manage, too, the seemingly impossible: despite the almost unquantifiable number of hours I have now spent in the company of Lila and Lenu, I left this wanting still more.