My Brilliant Friend: Parts One and Two

Based on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, Adapted by April de Angelis
Rose Theatre, Kingston
Olivier Theatre (National Theatre)

Niamh Cusack, Catherine McCormack Credit: Marc Brenner
Ben Turner, Niamh Cusack Credit: Marc Brenner
A scene from My Brilliant Friend Part 1 Credit: Marc Brenner

After a successful run at the Rose Theatre in Kingston two years ago, April de Angelis’s five-hour-long stage adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s popular, semi-autobiographical novel cycle has been promoted to one of the National Theatre’s main stages.

A very simple staging by adaptation specialist Melly Still (who worked wonders with Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and Coram Boy) and her designer Soutra Gilmour uses minimal props, the most significant of which are a pair of Escher-like staircases. This approach allows actors oceans of space, period conveyed as much by an evocative soundtrack as visual stimulants, although there are some poignant projections.

Just before the interval at the end of Part One, there is a debate between academics as to whether Elena’s work is something of a potboiler or a cleverly conveyed depiction of “the unwritten lives of women”. The jury may be out on that one.

What the writer attempts to do is bring to life the experiences of Niamh Cusack’s Lenù and her friend from schooldays, Lila played by Catherine McCormack.

From the start, Lila is a bold bully, always happy to take risks, which conflicts with the natural cautiousness of her more conventionally studious compatriot.

In the 1950s, the natural course for a girl was to leave school barely literate at eight or nine and that was followed by Lila’s working-class parents, while aspiring novelist Lenù progressed through senior school to university.

One of the more touching elements of the tale is the way in which the deprived youngster managed to educate herself through her friend’s schoolwork and the talents of a natural autodidact.

In her mid-teens, Lila married Stefano played by Jonah Russell, a financially astute sadist, while her friend studied, while yearning for Ben Turner as Nino, a man who would never love her as she wished but thereby hangs another tale. Instead, she marries Pietro, a weak but successful Professor, sensitively portrayed by Justin Avoth.

While the family dramas play out, the Neapolitan Mafia or Camorra maintains a threatening presence behind the scenes and occasionally helps to incite outbursts of violence. The Family feuds are never-ending, with the main distinction being the arrival of a Godmother, Emily Mytton’s Manuela, with her murderous sons and hairpin.

The story progresses through the 1960s, the two women always close but never entirely comfortable, primarily because Lila is both self-destructive and careless of her friend’s needs and best interests.

In Part Two, sexual liberation and economic freedom for the working classes take over, although historical standards are never completely forgotten.

The overall effect in the sequence of events that eventually runs right into the mid-1980s can be impressionistic, good stories abounding but with big gaps left in between.

My Brilliant Friend is a frequently engrossing combination of family saga, gangster drama and social commentary. There is little doubt that the last element is the most intriguing, especially since, in Italy’s male-dominated society of half a century ago, women unexpectedly manage to exert power and escape from traditional shackles on so many occasions.

Niamh Cusack carries the show, rarely offstage and successfully developing the autobiographical Elena, while Catherine McCormack provides tremendous support, shining in her character’s toughest moments.

Some viewers may find five hours of force-fed action involving husbands, lovers and Mafiosi somewhat indigestible but the message from the women’s liberation movement and pushback against alpha male entitlement could prove powerful enough to override any such concerns.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher

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