Writer: April De Angelis based on the books by Elena Ferrante
Director: Melly Still
Reviewer: Richard Maguire
Based on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, this five-hour epic first seen at Kingston’s Rose Theatre in 2017 now comes to the National. Tracing the friendship between two women who first meet as schoolchildren, Ferrante’s tale stretches 60 years over four books but while this stage version is still long, running over two nights or occasionally on a single day when both parts are shown, there have been heavy edits to the text. In comparison, what’s left appears scrappy and somewhat flimsy.
There’s a scene towards the end of Part One, where Lenù, now a successful author has to defend her new book to the critics. One suggests that her novel is nothing more than a series of tacky love affairs. This critic may have well been talking about this play, because it is the love affairs of Lenù Greco that take centre stage in this adaptation. Other issues that Ferrante tackles in her series such as Second Wave Feminism, the student riots of ’68 and the fight for workers rights are side-lined as the story propels itself ever forward.
Set in working-class Naples, My Brilliant Friend (the title of the first book in the quartet) also tells the story of how Lenù and her best friend Lila resist the sexism of Italy at that time and how they thwart the Camorra, the Neapolitan Mafia, here headed up by two brothers and their mother. One of the brothers takes a fancy to Lila but she takes a blade to his throat and threatens to kill him. From then on Lila is known as the tough one, while Lenù becomes the academic, doing well at school and moving on to university.
It his through her studies that Lenù meets and falls in love with Nino, an intelligent and idealistic student, but he prefers her brilliant friend Lila, even though she is married and pregnant. As the years pass and marriages come and go, Lenù and Lila still fight over Nino to such an extent they wonder if they are friends at all.
Their close-knit community in Naples is rendered almost Dickensian, and the set, which consists mainly of four stairways on wheels, conjures up the courtyards where the two girls would play. Later, these stairways become the factory where Lila works, or the home that Lenù shares with a professor. With Soutra Gilmour’s minimal staging, the Olivier Theatre seems vast which seems fitting for such a theatrical marathon.
Despite the years that pass, the same actors play their characters both as children and adults, with very little fuss, although, strangely, Catherine McCormack as Lila dons a grey wig to signify her own aging. There’s much fun to be had with adults playing children and Part Two has more comedy than the first Part. All the set pieces, parties and earthquakes, are so colourful and noisy that they are reminiscent of soap-opera showdowns and the gangsters quickly lose their menace and become cartoony instead.
McCormack and Niamh Cusack as Lenù give solid performances, and at least one of them is on stage in every scene. All the characters declare that Lila is the cleverest person they have met, or that she is evil, or badly made, but McCormack doesn’t reveal these hidden depths. Cuscak has the more sympathetic role as the out-of-touch author (‘I studied the class struggle at university’) and her character is more fully formed.
The rest of the cast do well, too, but with so many characters it is a little confusing to remember who is married to who, and the plotline involving Alfonso seems to come out of nowhere, and is underdeveloped. Rather than theatre, TV seems the best home for Ferrante’s books and last year an Italian series began, giving eight episodes to the first volume of the series alone. And while April de Angelis’s adaptation never feels rushed, there is still the sense that there is something missing in these five hours.
Runs until 22 February 2019 | Image: contributed