Late in the second half of the second half of My Brilliant Friend, I felt distinctly called out.
Lila, one of the Neapolitan duo around whom the story swirls, says disdainfully to her friend Lenù, a novelist, “It’s only in mediocre novels that everything fits together perfectly.”
In fact, the point is so important, they say it twice, Lenù—as she often does—slightly inaccurately paraphrasing her friend: “It’s only bad novels that make the world coherent.”
In both instances, I glanced down at my notes, a series of wayward scribbles (the very dark lighting design doesn’t leave much residual glow to take notes by) more or less all lamenting the same thing: this is so episodic, this isn’t building to anything, this is just incidents stacked together.
Ah-ha! I could feel adaptor April De Angelis saying through these lines. Isn’t that the point!
It’s a point that works very well in the sprawling quartet of novels on which this pair of plays is based. Author Elena Ferrante’s captivating prose places us in the sometimes-claustrophobic perspective of the confused and striving Lenù, who is never sure if she is living the life her best friend Lila should have had or vice versa. Theirs is a smothering and inspiring friendship that forms the roiling core of a series that spans fifty years and takes in the girls’ entire community, in a dense web of tangled lives and events that may seem to not fit together perfectly, but is in fact woven with such skill that satisfying echoes resonate everywhere.
In De Angelis and director Melly Still’s production, these threads are scattered and frayed. Often feeling more like a summary than an adaptation, the choppy, episodic structure packs in as much as it possibly can and leaves no time for any of it to settle. Modular, concrete staircases stand in for everything from the girls’ childhood homes to Lenù’s upscale university circles later in life; they are functional but lend little in the way of character to the locales they represent. This is of particular detriment to what both Lila and Lenù always call ‘the neighbourhood,’ the impoverished corner of Naples where they both grew up, which wants to feel like a third central character, but never achieves a real sense of identity.
Niamh Cusack as Lenù and Catherine McCormack as Lila do their level best to create characters from the rough outline of characters that the brief, rapid-fire scenes allow. But any given ten minute section of the two plays could be expanded into an entire play of its own, if it were blown up and given space to delve fully into the characters’ minds and hearts and the difficulty of their choices. The fleeting moments nearly accumulate into the feeling of a full person, but it’s down to their performances that they get as close as they do.
The plays are at their best when Still explores less literal staging territory. The best sequence in both plays might be the first ten minutes, when the stage is plunged into stark, horror-movie lighting as Lila and Lenù, young children, approach the house of neighbourhood bogeyman Don Achille. Smoke and eerie light glows from the grate that leads to his basement; as they open the door, Lenù has a vision of Don Achille as a dark, writhing beast. The sequence is impressionistic and strange, evocative of the heightened and distorted perspective of childhood. Also well-served by their staging motif are the local mafiosos, the Solara brothers and their mother Manuela, who appear in a series of silent, heavily underscored moments of menace, conveying both their charisma and their power. But these are all exceptions to the stylistic rule.
This pair of plays will surely be described everywhere as ‘ambitious,’ but I found myself continually frustrated by their lack of ambition in regards to anything but size. It felt like no serious effort was made to consider how to make the novels theatrical, what the medium live performance could add to the story. I want more ambition of vision, ambition in smashing a beloved set of novels against the stage and letting them become something uniquely theatrical and new.
My Brilliant Friend is on at the National Theatre until 22nd February 2020. More info and tickets here.