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.