Evening Standard

My Brilliant Friend, theatre review: Ambitious, satisfying attempt to realise Elena Ferrante’s world

April De Angelis condenses 1,600 pages into two plays but it’s still an epic experience, writes Henry Hitchings


Elena Ferrante’s four richly personal Neapolitan novels have won her legions of admirers. Eloquent about the power of memory, they’re an addictive portrait of friendship at its most intense. The central characters, Lenù and Lila, are often apart, but their destinies are intricately connected. Beginning in the Fifties, amid poverty and violence, their relationship is explosive, involving joy and betrayal, and outside forces — whether fascism or family rivalry — are constantly impinging on their more intimate narratives of jealousy, reversal and survival.

This adaptation by April De Angelis condenses 1,600 pages into two plays. It’s still an epic experience — a running time of five and a half hours represents a big investment for theatregoers. Yet much has had to be sacrificed. Details of gangster thuggery, political injustice and the travails of motherhood are abbreviated or omitted. Some fans may also protest that the Italian flavours and textures have been compromised, though an interpretation more infatuated with them might just have seemed hammy.

Director Melly Still has crafted a fluent production. Inevitably there’s a lot of exposition, but the storytelling is mostly nimble, with moments of visual ingenuity — Soutra Gilmour’s design makes simple and effective use of iron stairways and billowing sheets. The thoughtfully economical approach may mean that while devotees of the books notice what’s been missed out, those unfamiliar with them feel that there’s too much to take in.

Crucially, the two main performances are superb. Niamh Cusack is both luminous and gritty as the earnest Lenù, apparently wholesome but also vain and jealous. Catherine McCormack’s Lila is a streetwise shapeshifter with a wild streak. At times she seems to have a death wish, and in McCormack’s hands she’s a fascinating mix of aloofness and feral dynamism. Their bond is ardent and ambivalent — part collaboration, part competition.

The male characters fare less well. As performers juggle multiple roles, only Toby Wharton’s cerebral and caddish Nino is genuinely memorable. But while it would be easy to complain that the adaptation could dig deeper into particular strata of its source material, this is an ambitious and satisfying attempt to realise Ferrante’s world. And it’s true to her novels in presenting as a soap opera what is in fact a radical vision of aspiration, crisis and desire.


Evening Standard

Play Talk: April de Angelis on adapting Elena Ferrante’s novels and cadging roll-ups on opening night

In our Play Talk series, playwrights discuss the joys and struggles of the writing life


Few writers have chronicled the female experience better than April de Angelis. Her plays – of which she has written over twenty – put women centre stage, often boldly spanning history. Always imminently watchable, her latest project has been the mammoth task of adapting Elena Ferrante’s hit Neapolitan novels for the the stage. You can currently catch My Brilliant Friend, performed in two parts, at the Rose Theatre in Kingston.

What was the first play to make you want to write plays?

Waiting for Godot. I didn’t get it all but I loved the dialogue!
“Vladimir: I’m glad to see you back. I thought you were gone forever.
Estragon: Me too.” – Sad and hilarious and scary all at once!

What was your background to becoming a playwright?

I was an (not very good) actor. I think I must have absorbed some stage craft stuff through the pores of my skin and that helped (a bit).

What is the hardest play you’ve ever written?

A Laughing Matter. It was at the National Theatre in 2003, about David Garrick. It had characters like Samuel Johnson – in order to write him I had to read loads in order to ‘get his voice’.

Which play brought you most joy?

Probably My Brilliant Friend Part 1 and 2. I love being in Naples!

Which playwrights influenced you the most?

Hard to say. How do you account for influence?  I love all the usual suspects: Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Strindberg, Shaw, Miller, Williams, Caryl Churchill.

Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack in My Brilliant Friend (Marc Brenner)

What is your favourite line or scene from any play?

The last scene in Top Girls. It’s the most thrilling political argument ever but totally ‘in character’ and it ends with a thrilling visual/bathetic punch in the guts appearance and single line.

The biggest surprise to you since you’ve had your writing performed by actors?

First time it ever happened I cried, I was overwhelmed!  Also I learnt a rule of thumb –  If the writing is good – good actors always make it better.

What’s been your biggest setback as a writer?

I don’t believe in setbacks. I think you are on a journey as a writer and you can’t expect it to be all painless. You have to try and understand your own flaws and blocks and accept they are all part of the life of a writer. Sometimes things going wrong wake you up!

And the hardest lesson you’ve had to learn?

You can’t be lazy.

What do you think is the best thing about theatre? And the worst?

Best thing: when it all comes together in collaborative ecstasy. Worst: when it doesn’t.

What’s your best piece of advice for writers who are starting out?

Read lots of plays – see lots of theatre. Read everything about the craft of playwriting. Value your imagination.

Are there any themes and stories you find yourself revisiting?

Mothers and daughters.

Are you on Twitter? Do you find it a help or a hindrance as a writer?

I’m on Twitter but I always forget to tweet.

How do you spend opening night?

Watching the play and unconsciously mouthing the words in a deeply irritating manner. Cadging roll-ups in the interval.

What’s the best play you’ve seen recently?

Ella Hickson’s’ Oil. I loved its imaginative scope. A mother and daughter move through centuries but age only through one life time – their story dissects with the history of the black stuff.

What’s your favourite theatre?

Royal Court because it’s the writer’s theatre.

What other art forms do you love when you’re not in a theatre?

Novels. Galleries.

If the Prime Minister said they were abolishing the theatre tomorrow, what would you do?

Agitate for a revolution. Seriously would life be worth living without it?


A Play To Devour: My Brilliant Friend At The Rose Theatre, Kingston

There is a striking shared lexicon that unites fans of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet: they will routinely speak of how they “devoured” the books; how “immersive” the experience was; how – yes – they were “impossible to put down”. This is not all to denigrate them; indeed, we have previously written glowingly about the series. It is merely to note that there is something extraordinary, especially for a work of literary fiction, about the way the books are consumed. As Joanna Biggs wrote in the LRB: “Ferrante’s writing seems to say something that hasn’t been said before – it isn’t easy to specify what this is – in a way so compelling its readers forget where they are, abandon friends and disdain sleep.” This new stage adaptation of the novels – adapted by Jumpy writer April de Angelis – appeals to same kind of maximalism, splitting the material into two shows across five hours.

From the minute the lights went out, there was a kind of collective rapture. Jon Nicholls’s mesmerising sound design, aided by opera music, transports us instantly to war-torn Naples. The cycle – if two plays makes a cycle – charts a lifelong friendship from childhood to their elderly years, battling political disputes, class division, violence, marriage, love affairs and motherhood along the way.

We first meet Lila (Catherine McCormack) and Lenu (Niamh Cusack) in the childhood years of their friendship, talking about their dolls, Tina and Nu, and beginning their adventure together. From the moment they meet, Lila is an intelligent, headstrong, adventurous spirit – perhaps even, at first glance, fearless. Lenu, in contrast, is a quieter personality, somewhat needy and fearful of consequences but ultimately willing to go along with Lila’s whims. Costume designer Soutra Gilmour dresses them in cheap, cotton dresses, indicative of their poverty; in these horrific conditions, these two girls are each other’s only beacon of hope.

Then we flash forward sixty years. Lenu is being visited by Lila’s son Gennaro, looking for his missing mother; Lenu then reflects wistfully on their tempestuous friendship. Director Melly Still handles the temporal shifts with an incredibly confident hand – and so, sure enough, we are soon back in the girls’ childhood, immersing ourselves again in their early war-torn world. With violence everywhere, they’re desperate to leave – in particular Lila, who sees writing a book, The Blue Fairy, as her ticket out of her neighbourhood. She has more intelligence than any of her peers at school but her family’s poverty causes her immense problems. Between her father’s opposition to women staying in education, and her mother’s concern that Lila might embarrass the son of one of their creditors by excelling above him in school, she is trapped in the poverty of Naples. Although Lenu doesn’t have the same aptitude that Lila has, she is allowed to stay in school, learning Latin. It’s at this point you see their economic status begin to shift. Lenu is in education; Lila is working in her father’s shoe store.

As they age into their late teen years, gang crime becomes more and more endemic. Lila has given up on reading, claiming “it gives me a headache”, while Lenu is in a relationship with her neighbour Antonio (Justin Avoth), even though her heart really belongs to Nino (Toby Wharton). It’s not long before Lila is married in an abusive and loveless relationship to Stefano (Jonah Russell), a local boy with connections to the gangster family of the neighbourhood, the Solaras. The day she said “I do” and realised the sort of man she married was the same day that her initial fieriness died away. Lenu’s confidence, however, continues to grow.

The jealousy we see between McCormack and Cusack is depicted very subtly. Lila sees everything in Lenu’s life that she craved for herself and so embarks on an affair with Nino, which makes her feel alive. In the same way, Lenu envies Lila’s motherhood and seeks to emulate it herself. While Lila is deeply unhappy in her marriage, Lenu enjoys success as a novelist, eventually marrying a professor. The differences in their marriages and social status become still more pronounced when their daughters are growing up together in their childhood neighbourhood of Naples following Lenu’s mother’s death. Again, Lila’s child has more brains than anyone in the neighbourhood, while Lenu’s child doesn’t quite measure up; however, it is Lenu’s child who has the greater opportunities.

McCormack and Cusack both perform with incredible passion and  humility, imbuing their characters with life. The production, too, is a visual treat: Rachael Canning’s puppetry and Rachel Bown-William’s fight choreography are nothing short of genius. The violence is handled sensitively, as one would hope, and never played for shock value or indeed melodrama.

Any theatrical adaptation of Ferrante’s novels will inevitably be fraught with all kinds of questions beforehand. What events or characters are you going to compress? How do you translate the brutal honesty of Ferrante’s voice? Is that even possible? However, within minutes of the curtains coming up, I put all these questions aside, utterly absorbed into the grand theatrical sweep.

The Observer

My Brilliant Friend review – intensity wins through

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.