Elena Ferrante's blockbuster quartet of novels make a startling leap to the stage
This review is from the Rose Theatre, Kingston in March 2017. ‘My Brilliant Friend’ will transfer to the National Theatre in reworked form with the same leads in November 2019
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is to millennials now what 'Harry Potter' was to millennials 15 years ago. The four novels detail the friendship of two women growing up in post-war and poverty-stricken Naples, from their childhood all the way to old age. Now they've been adapted for the stage - and it's as addictive as the books themselves.
April de Angelis's take on the novels runs over two performances, at a total of five-and-a-half hours. It makes intense viewing: the first half of the play features child molestation, fights, mental health issues, domestic violence, virginity-loss and the chaos of Naples' politics all at once. It's as much a story about the battles of womanhood in an age of misogyny as a tale of friendship.
The bond between narrator Lenu and her best/worst pal Lila is depicted in gut-wrenching detail in the books: Lenu's internal monologues swill with jealousy, rage, obsession and misunderstanding of her pal. It's what makes the novels great, and also what makes a play adaptation of them so unexpected. There are no monologues here - but that’s fine. What De Angelis and director Melly Still give you is a more balanced view of the friendship with the imagery of the books translated into performance. We see Lenu and Lila tear out the eyeballs of their enemies and imagine threatening older characters as actual monsters. During the many scenes of graphic violence Lila and Lenu face, the actors' clothes are used as stand in 'ghost' versions of them, thrown around by the other actors on stage.
The same cast play the characters from tots to adulthood and do it convincingly, their mannerisms transforming throughout the play. Many have strong colloquial accents, perhaps a nod to the Napoleon dialect that Lenu often refers to. Niamh Cusack plays Lenu with a sense of vanity and self-analysis and Catherine McCormack handles Lila fearlessnessly. You'll enjoy it if you haven't read the books, and even more if you have. It's worth travelling to Kingston for – twice.