April De Angelis accepted quite the challenge when she agreed to adapt Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet for the stage. Mainly because of the sheer volume of material, but also because the feverish grasp readers have on these stories. Pre-show, I toyed with the idea of seeing audience members clasping the books like security blankets – which turned out to be a bizarrely accurate prediction.
De Angelis has partnered with director Melly Still to bring Ferrante’s Naples to life through five hours of theatre split in two parts; much like the women whose lives they depict, they are not whole without the other. Elena (also known as Lenù) and Lila are childhood friends, and their friendship runs deep, it’s the type of friendship that can easily sustain four novels. As Elena, Niamh Cusack spends both part of the play in the same blue smock. She plays Lenù with wit and warmth and her devotion to Lila is clear whilst never losing herself in her friend’s shadow. Her character is the more careful of the two; she’s eager to please and spurred on by other people’s aspirations.
Like a prism, Elena reflects those around her. In contrast, Catherine McCormack’s Lila, whose outfits are forever changing, is a kaleidoscope of entities. It’s hard to pin down her exact shape but we know that she is impressive and has seductive qualities that both help and hinder her navigation of turbulent Naples. McCormack’s portrayal of Lila summons the image of a butterfly captured by a bell jar, furiously flapping its wings in an attempt to escape, then eventually tiring and conceding to its entrapment. Regardless of its fate, the image of the butterfly remains beguiling.
Still’s production fully utilises the ensemble and numerous moments of mass movement are magnetic to watch. Dolls are manipulated by two company members who imbue them with playful human sensibilities. The illustration of violence, often involving separating the victim from a piece of their clothing and acting out the violence upon the garment instead of the human body, is particularly effective.
Still also has a good sense for the rhythm of Naples, filling the stage with an abundance of activity that suits de Angelis’s rapid collection of scenes. The three-tiered stage is brimming with bed sheets, copper pans, and noises that summons the streets of the women’s hometown. There’s sense to this idea, but the rapid succession of plot details means that individual moments are sometimes denied the chance to properly land.
The biggest fallacy of the production is that we’re watching a very English telling of a very Italian story. It’s hard to be immersed in an Italian world when the names of Gigliola, Marcello, Alfonso and Nino are spoken in English in bold, regional accents. It suspends the belief just a shade to much.
Yet overall, the play walks a tightrope between the serious and melodramatic, and the balance mostly pays off. It’s a beautiful, addictive world to be a part of and one well worth dedicating seven whole hours to.
My Brilliant Friend is on at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until 2nd April 2017. Click here for more details.