April De Angelis’ two-part adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s beloved Neapolitan Novels has a lot of stories to tell you and this production ricochets from magical realism to mobster-camp with frequent stops at political-feminism-polemic to bring them to you. It’s a bit exhausting.
How do you translate an epic, adored literary series to the stage without ending up with a mess like Lord of the Rings: The Musical? How do you squeeze four novels and several decades worth of story onto the stage, even one as large as the National Theatre’s Olivier? Well, to be honest, it’s probably best not to try as even the considerable talents at play here struggle to make My Brilliant Friend a truly stand-alone piece of theatre.
Full disclosure, I have not read the books or seen the recent HBO miniseries, so I came to the story without preconceptions. It’s the tale of two women, played at various stages of their lives, from childhood to womanhood by the truly excellent Niamh Cusack (Lenù) and Catherine McCormack (Lila). They weave in and out of each other’s lives for decades and get embroiled in the world of Italian academia and crime. These two women have a fascinating dynamic.
Childhood friends and mutual antagonists, the fiercely intelligent Lenù and Lila take separate paths as Lenù is allowed to study and progress through education while Lila is sent to work. The two continually bounce off each other, at times propelling the other onward, or often tearing the other down. The seething mix of contradictory emotions – love, jealousy, respect, disgust, bitterness, trust – make the two women eminently watchable, you can never really predict where they will go next.
Around them, Italian society changes in the face of the 20th Century. Feminism, socialism, fascism are all thrown at them over the decades. In their native Naples, the underbelly of crime seeps into every facet of life. There are scenes that crackle with electricity, and the show picks up steam as it goes. As Lenù and Lila tackle the issues from very different angles there is an engaging spark to their minds and words.
However all the greatness in this production is eeked out over the expansive running time (this is not two plays, it is one very long one – seeing a single part would make no sense). We are presented with vignettes from the novels as Lila goes from trophy wife to shoe designer to factory worker to tech entrepreneur. Lenù moves from academia to authorhood to marriage to parenthood. Stuff happens, a lot of it, but it doesn’t come to a conclusion, it merely stops at the most recent episode.
Of course, the show’s run has almost sold out already based on the popularity of the books. The fans who love these characters, these two incredible women, will savour spending the best part of a day in their company.
By Chad Armstrong
Production Photos © Marc Brenner 2019