Olivier, National Theatre – until 22 February 2020
The page to stage transfer can be a tricky process and in the last few years the National Theatre has been at the forefront of a wave of inventive and on the whole successful co-produced adaptations of much-loved novels. Their Jane Eyre with the Bristol Old Vic utilised a host of theatrical techniques to dramatise the life of the proto-feminist governess, while last year’s production of Small Island felt significant.
Yet the pitfalls are many in the process of removing the interior authorial voice and giving life to the wider narrative context and characterisation that the novel has the space and capacity to consider in detail. This two-part reworking of Elena Ferrante’s Neopolitan series is much anticipated and, after an acclaimed run at the Rose Theatre Kingston, makes its West End debut at the Olivier Theatre.
Part One summaries Ferrante’s first two novels, My Brilliant Friend from which the show takes its overall title, and The Story of a New Name with around 85 minutes given over to the content of the first book and 45 to the second. Part Two – which you can see on the same day or on successive evenings – deals with Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (c. 75 minutes) and The Story of the Lost Child (c.60 minutes) making both a little shorter than their advertised two hours and 45 minute run times.
It is undoubtedly an ambitious project to compress a couple of thousand pages of text, a huge cast of characters and 60 years of history into just over five hours of theatre, and while sometimes the show feels a little lightweight as it gallops through the incidences of Lenu and Lila’s story, the overall effect successfully conveys the complexities of long-lasting female friendship as well as capturing the undercurrents of violence that form the social structures of Nepalese society, not to mention the aspirational effects of scholastic achievement that run through the novel to create class movement in a period of rapid social and technological change, particularly for women.
People love Ferrante’s work for its psychological authenticity and the almost immersive quality of the writing that instantly pulls the reader into the world and experiences of her characters, vividly creating the nature of life in Naples in the 1950s and 1960s particularly well. Her characters are so well-rounded that no one is wholly good or bad but given depth and perspective that shifts over the long experience of the novels as lives go in opposing directions while opportunities, love affairs and calamities come and go.
To bring all this to the stage Melly Still’s reworking of April De Angelis’ adaptation gives the show both a flowing and episodic quality as the interior monologue of the protagonist Elena Greco know as Lenu through whose eyes the reader sees the world entirely in the books, is replaced by fully dramatised scenes that in Part One tip the balance in favour of Lila’s character before restoring Lenu to the centre of her own story in Part Two.
As a result, Lenu becomes more an observer of her brilliant friend’s more vivid life. Events pass rapidly on Soutra Gilmour’s sparse set that (surely) repurposes the fire escapes from Follies to become the balconies and stairwells of the slum area of close habitation that frames the story – an effective approach which captures the bustle and tension of neighbours in close proximity and in which threats of spontaneous violence often erupt. The sparring use of giant wrap-around video screens project images of writing and drawing in Part One as Lila creates The Blue Fairy from which Lenu’s own desire to become a writer stems, while later images of apartment blocks, riots and even static distortion convey the wider social and political atmosphere.
The creation of community where love and hate live side-by-side is one of My Brilliant Friend‘s most interesting achievements in Part One building a strong foundation – as Ferrante does with the novels – for the direction of her protagonists in their simultaneous desperation to escape, control and be consumed by this formational place. It is here that the basis for both women’s future interaction with men are shaped, using Toby Olié’s puppetry to interesting effect to dramatise the violent confrontations that shock but also show the disassociation of the victim. When Lila is raped on her wedding night by her new husband, a puppet dress takes her place in a stylised confrontation while the real Lila lays distraught on the floor – it is powerfully rendered. The later use of puppets to represent children in Act Four feels superfluous and irritatingly twee by comparison.
The choice to make Lenu solely a character and not a narrator is – at least in Part One – an uneasy one, pushing her into the background and simplifying, on the one hand, her role and the intensity of her relationships in the first two novels including downplaying the mixed messaging of Nino. On the other hand, towards the end of the first evening, it does help to mark her transition to writer and chronicler of Naples life. When Niamh Cusack starts to recite text taken directly from Ferrante’s pages at the bookstore launch of Lenu’s first novel, the whole play suddenly comes alive in an entirely different way, arguably marking the point where Lenu finds her voice and a degree of independence from Lila that will shape Part Two which also makes sense as a stage decision. Yet the absence of her authorial perspective in the rest of Part One feels like a loss in what at times becomes a succession of connected scenes rather than an unfolding narrative held firmly and consistently together by Lenu’s controlling hand.
Part Two is considerably more successful and while potentially the earlier production has created the groundwork, it is here that the stage adaptation shows greater confidence in the management of the material and the overarching themes – helped not a little by the proper placement of Lenu at the centre of her own story. The growing discontent she feels as an intellectual woman force by circumstance and patriarchal expectations into the (to her) restrictive roles of wife and mother are really well conveyed, lifting dialogue so recognisably from Ferrante’s third instalment. Likewise, Lenu’s struggle to retain her sense of self and a momentum to keep writing throughout her awkward marriage to fellow academic Pietro well suggests the building pressure and loneliness of a woman who believes she was educated for more.
The third act is also more strikingly political as Still in her duel capacity as director uses the video screens and choroegraphed fight sequences by John Sandeman to evoke the riot at Bruno Soccavo’s factory, aspects of which intrude on Lenu’s growing domestication and seeing the two side by side with Lenu and her family blithely unaware of the violence around them is one of the high points of this production. Likewise, the growing Mafioso-like dominance of the Solaras has the two brothers and their matriarch enter like film noir villains, bathed in shadow and scored with a notable composition that strikingly contrasts with family life.
The skill with which Still combines these two aspects creates a stronger and more consistent narrative flow than Part One that cleverly represents traditional power structures under attack as they are brought under pressure from political activism as well as also the growing demands of female intellectual recognition. And Jon Nicholls sound design and music choices are integral to the context of the piece, playing snatches of era-defining songs at crucial moments to facilitate scene changes but also to rapidly relocate the action to a different year or decade creating instant recognition for the audience of the mood of the times and the individual characters at any given moment.
Across the four acts of this two-part drama, the changing friendship of Lila and Lenu is the strength of My Brilliant Friend and while this is at the expense of depth among the supporting cast, creating only impressionistic portraits of everyone else, the charting of an enduring but never smooth experience of female companionship and solidarity is rare enough sight on any stage. In many ways the story improves with Lila’s absence – an unpopular opinion perhaps – but the character never quite holds the allure her author originally ascribed to her, while Lenu’s trajectory was always far more interesting on the page even when she doubted her own value.
Niamh Cusack plays Lenu across the many decades of the story taking her from the gauche pre-teen playing with dolls to the assured author in her 60s, and while the concept of adults playing children usually means squeaky voices and plenty of exaggerated gurning, Cusack avoids all of that to make her youthful Elena studious and innocent, vastly overshadowed by her glamorous friend. But as the years pass, Cusack brings a growing strength to the performance that captures the Lenu we know from the books, navigating her way through domestic upheavals while reacting to the changes affecting Naples and the wider world that drive her own desire to commentate on it as well as enhance her education. As our narrator, Lenu is highly sympathetic and Cusack sustains the momentum well across more than five hours of theatre, an impressive performance and no mean feat given she is in almost every scene.
Katherine McCormack conveys the fiery aspects of Lila as she chooses a path that is ultimately far more treacherous than her friend’s. But Lila is a hard character to like, she’s largely dismissive, aggressive and at times self-pitying, making decisions that deliberately wound Lenu, so in the play’s more simplified approach its difficult to believe – as Lenu’s husband Pietro points out – that the pair could have remained friends for so long. McCormack captures the relentlessness of Lila’s life and the extent to which decisions that shape her are beyond her control leaving her with very few moments of real happiness, but across the many hours of the play the character’s attitudes and slightly dramatic style of speech are remarkably unvarying, giving McCormack little to work with.
A similar pruning happens across the sub-characters too, a necessity to bring this complex set of novels to the stage, and although well-acted across the cast, it does loosen some of the emotional undercurrents present in Ferrante’s work. Ben Turner’s Nino has far less presence here and while Turner suggests his charm there’s none of the charismatic intensity of long-held romantic or political passion for which Lila and Lenu risk both their marriages, while Mary Jo Randle’s mother to Lenu is primarily a comedy character transposed to generic northern housewife that gives little time to the substantial psychological influence Immacolata has on every aspect of her daughter’s life and the significance of Lenu’s determination to make her own decisions.
Part Two is a little more satisfying in construction and flow than Part One largely because Lenu is much more in focus in the second half, but the five and a half hours essentially fly by. This page to stage adaptation should largely please fans of the Neapolitan series, finally seeing much loved characters brought to life in this interesting way, although some may feel the breadth of this world compressed into two plays is at the cost of emotional and narrative depth within the subplots. Nonetheless its hard not to be impressed by the achievement of this two part production of My Brilliant Friend, and its interesting techniques to imagine the vast world of Ferrante’s novels.
My Brilliant Friend Parts One and Two are at the National Theatre until 22 February with tickets from £15 per show. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
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