‘My Brilliant Friend’ review

Theatre, Drama
4 out of 5 stars
My Brilliant Friend, National Theatre, 2019
Photograoh: Marc Brenner Niamh Cusack, Catherine McCormack

Time Out says

4 out of 5 stars

A titanic performance from Catherine McCormack fuels this vivid two-part stage take on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels

I can personally confirm that you absolutely don’t have to have read Elena Ferrante’s acclaimed Neapolitan novels to appreciate this gloriously widescreen, five-hour, two-part adaptation from April De Angelis, which transfers to the NT in souped-up form after a stint at the Rose Theatre Kingston a couple of years back. 

That’s a big chunk of time and story, so packed with incident it clearly betrays the fact the source material is four books, each with their own arc and focus.I can imagine a single play adaptation that dispensed with those swathes of background detail would still work.

But whatever the case, ‘My Brilliant Friend’ is a deeply satisfying day of theatre that revolves around a remarkable depiction of a tumultuous decades-long friendship between two women, Lenu (Niamh Cusack) and Lila (Catherine McCormack).

Growing up together on the streets of the same rough Neapolitan neighbourhood in socially stultified post-war Italy, the pair are marked out by their extreme brightness. But their lives are sent along different tracks by nurture – Lenu’s parents pay for her to further her studies, Lila’s don’t – and nature: Lenu knows how to keep her head down; Lila is a fearlessly raging hurricane of a woman.

‘My Brilliant Friend’ is the name of the first book, and how Lila repeatedly describes Lenu, who goes on to achieve a far more conventionally successful life than her, finding minor celebrity as a writer. But the description would seem more apt the other way around: Lenu is the central character, the ‘my’ whose life the story charts in scrupulous detail. Lila is the friend, and in McCormack’s incandescent performance she is painfully brilliant. With a gravelly roar of a voice, a near-permanent death stare, and a savagely clear-eyed comprehension of the world, she almost seems to exist more solidly than the other characters, a sucking black hole of righteous rage, burning intelligence and toxic bitterness.

It’s a remarkable part and a remarkable performance, and it is possible that it might unbalance a shorter take on the stories. One good thing about the prodigious running time is that it allows Cusack’s turn as Lenu to unfurl more delicately, blooming in Lila’s many absences. She’s not just the straight woman she first appears to be. In some ways, Lila’s nihilist rage and willingness to fight back immunises her from conservative, patriarchal Italy. Lenu tries to work within it and struggles – to follow up her early success; to escape the suspicion of her own mediocrity; to raise children; to find somebody who really loves her (all the men are, without exception, shits).

To say that a lot of other stuff happens too is an understatement: it’s essentially a lengthy philosophical treatise on what it is and was to be a woman in post-war Italian society (and much of that goes for Western society as a whole, albeit there’s more mafia here).

Cusack and McCormack play the characters over the course of something like 60 years, but the story gains its power from them feeling like the same basic people for most of it: we don’t so much watch them grow as people as watch an a fizzingly unstable reaction unfurl over six decades. 

Melly Still’s ultra-dynamic production does most of the heavy lifting in terms of conveying time passing: Tal Yarden’s giant projections take us through the years in a variety of visual styles; Jon Nicholls’s sound design incorporates gloriously booming pop songs from the corresponding periods; a pair of interlocking, moving staircases from designer Soutra Gilmour allow the impression of constant change without the need for detailed sets.

Like I say, in terms of plotting it emphatically feels more like Some Books On Stage than A Classic New Play. But if the volume of incident is maybe a bit much to follow at times, it all adds to the sense of intoxicating richness. And ultimately it’s about two towering performances, one delicate and nuanced, one dense and dark as a neutron star.


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