‘Elena Ferrante was more challenging than Tolstoy’
Timberlake Wertenbaker has adapted the Italian author’s hit novels for radio. She reveals why she took the characters from Naples to Manchester
It comes as rather a shock — like getting toad-in-the-hole when you were expecting linguine pescatore. First, floating over the airwaves, there’s Neapolitan folk music such as you might hear in a family-run pizzeria in Old Napoli. That, and a voice-over, introduces us to Radio 4’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s second novel in her bestselling historical saga known here as The Neapolitan Quartet. Then you hear the main characters — Naples-born childhood friends Elena and Lila — speak . . . in broad, flat-vowelled Mancunian. It’s hard not to giggle.
Not everyone will appreciate the BBC’s two-part take on The Story of a New Name, to be aired on January 15 at 3pm and again the week after. Naples has been transferred to the north of England again — the radio treatment of the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, which first aired in the summer to mixed criticism, also made the ragazze sound as though they were Made in Manchester.
Yet once you tune in to the accents — Monica Dolan, last seen as the maid in the BBC’s Agatha Christie adaptation The Witness for the Prosecution, is a wonderful Lena and Anastasia Hille gets a suitably turbulent Lila just right — the story possesses you. The precise dialogue, artful reduction and accomplished performances made me, a Ferrante addict, want to listen on and read the novels all over again. Phew, va tutto bene — as they say in Stockport.
The writer responsible for the adaptation is one of our premier playwrights, Timberlake Wertenbaker, best known for Our Country’s Good. That play about an Australian penal colony, which opened at the Royal Court in 1988, is still being taught in schools and was recently revived to acclaim at the National Theatre by Nadia Fall.
We meet in the National Gallery café in London — she has tickets to the Caravaggio exhibition (more representations of earthy Italians) and we have an hour before her slot. Wertenbaker, 70, who has wonderful Crystal Tipps hair, sparkly eyes and an elegant gait, read about Ferrante online more than two years ago and had a personal connection with Naples — she visited with a journalist boyfriend as a student and witnessed political discontent at first hand — so she was interested. “I got the first book and started reading it that night and didn’t put it down, and manufactured the flu so I could stay in bed and read it. It was 4am and I had to get up at 7am.” A classic diagnosis of Ferrante fever.
After she’d eaten up the novels, she pitched the idea for a radio play to the drama producer Celia de Wolff at Radio 4. “I was under the very naive impression that I had discovered her [Ferrante]. I said to the BBC: ‘It will be great! We will introduce England to Elena Ferrante!’ Of course, that’s a joke now. Now I feel that everyone has read it so it’s a different proposition.”
And their relocation to England? “I definitely didn’t want them to be from London or the southeast — that would be like setting it in Florence or Milan. Liverpool was right, but too distinctive an accent and place. We wouldn’t have dreamt of them speaking with Italian accents.” So they settled on “around Manchester”. “The only thing that has been a pain is getting the pronunciation of the Italian names right,” she admits.
Wertenbaker has adapted many great authors from Sophocles to Racine and, more recently, War and Peace, also for Radio 4. Ferrante was one of the most challenging, she says. “Tolstoy was easier, with Tolstoy you are going from A to B at a gallop and with Ferrante what makes it so difficult is that it’s circular, actually a spiral, and events might happen three times in one novel, and that’s difficult to write in a dramatic form of time.”
I definitely didn’t want them to be from London or the southeast
In Ferrante there are a lot of auxiliary characters — from shop workers to activists — who are nevertheless crucial to the plot. How did she ram them all in? “It’s hard, but it’s important. What I have noticed is that you leave a character out at your peril because that character will reappear at some point and will explain something.”
In Wertenbaker’s version Lena and Lila take it in turns to narrate. “It was the only way to give them equal weight.” So, Elena or Lila, does she have a preference? “I can’t have a favourite!” she laughs. “Being a dramatist you have to love everyone. Otherwise you can’t make them speak if you don’t like them, they won’t talk very well.”
The Story of a New Name packs an almighty emotional punch; from Lila and Stefano’s violent marriage-night scene to Elena and Lila’s holiday on Ischia. When I spoke to Ferrante’s translator Ann Goldstein recently she said that having your head stuck in Ferrante had an emotional consequence in one’s own life. Wertenbaker agrees: “The characters really get to you. You have to get inside them to make them speak.”
Her working method for adaptations is total absorption and no cut-and-pasting. Wertenbaker read the book a few times, learnt it by heart and then “tried to know it”. Then she reread it once again taking notes (she pulls an exercise book from her bag exposing her neat, slanty writing). “Then I go to my computer and start page one, then I go back to my notes.” She uses only the dialogue that she remembers. “In fact her [Ferrante’s] dialogue is very good, but it has to be cut. In a novel you can speak in a paragraph, but I have to take a line.”
Wertenbaker admits there is great pressure when you are adapting a writer with such a passionate fan base. She takes a sip of green tea. “I am worried about the Ferrante fans because they know the books better than I do. I had that a bit with the War and Peace fans, but there weren’t that many. You are not doing the book, you are doing an adaptation. You hope that those who haven’t read it will listen and read it or that it brings something back to those that have. I think it’s great to read after listening. It’s not like TV when you have the image printed. It’s very fluid.”
So what more does a radio play ever bring to a well-known story? “I don’t think it brings anything,” she says with true modesty. “It is another way of being reminded — in the same way that you listen to an adaptation of a Jane Austen you have read 25 times.”