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 The Theatreguide.London Review

My Brilliant Friend (Parts I and II)
Olivier Theatre   Winter 2019-2020

Bringing Elena Ferrante's quartet of Neapolitan Novels to the stage would be daunting, even after the decision was made to make them two full-length plays, essentially one act per volume. So perhaps the best that could have been hoped is that April De Angelis's adaptation almost works.

The novels follow two working-class girls from Naples to womanhood through the second half of the Twentieth Century.

Lenu (Niamh Cusack) and Lila (Catherine McCormack) are bright children, recommended for high school, but only Lenu's parents will let her go. And thus, it would appear, are the rest of their lives determined.

Lenu goes on to university, moves in cultured circles and becomes a novelist and feminism theorist. Lila works in a meat processing plant, gets involved in union activities and leads the more 'authentic' life.

Meanwhile the world around them, from neighbourhood feuds through the local Mafia to endemic sexism and other prejudices, is shown to set the rigid parameters within which all lives must be led.

But that initial sense of determinism, which drives the first two books and the first play, is soon displaced by another, biology trumping even economics and class. Despite growing feminist sensibilities both women are driven by their passions for men and, later, by their roles as mothers.

I don't know if the novels resolve these contradictions, but one of the weaknesses of De Angelis's adaptation is that by the middle of the second play neither woman seems to stand for anything, not even the contrast between them, as both seem to bounce randomly from one man to another or one externally-generated crisis to another.

The strongest elements in both plays are the depiction of a friendship that believably waxes and wanes over time but never breaks, and the evocation of the social and moral world of the neighbourhood neither woman ever fully escapes.

The first play holds interest through the depiction of this milieu and the introduction of the girls, their growing into adult personalities providing a forward momentum.

But the second play, like many sequels, sometimes seems like out-takes from the first, offering just more of the same as both women seem trapped in a loop of attraction ot one man and abuse by another (or the same one), repeatedly approaching new self-discoveries but never quite achieving them.

The dramatic mode of adapter De Angelis and director Melly Still is inventive but fraught with problems not all solved.

The very large cast is made up largely of figures who pass briefly through the two central women's lives, giving the actors little chance to develop characters, and even those who do recur come and go so briefly and infrequently that we have difficulty remembering who they were.

In particular the men, heroes and villains, become such interchangeable characters that when Lenu or Lila announces an uncontrollable desire for one we don't remember him enough to know what to think about that.

Director Still admirably keeps things moving smoothly and we are always clear on where and when we are, even if we're not sure who it is we're with. But her techniques for anchoring us in reality come and go.

A couple of puppets appear early in the first play and another pair late in the second, but the device is sufficiently out of place in the general style as to be distracting.

A clever trick for denoting the passage of time by the pop music various characters listen to is dropped partway through, and another time-check, a passing reference to Jackie Kennedy, stands out in being the only one of its kind.

A self-referential mode – Lenu writes a novel that is essentially the first play, and spends some of the second play dealing with people's reactions to it – never really goes anywhere.

And neither do most of the larger themes the novels evoke. Lenu's growing feminist awareness leads her to interrupt her novel writing for an essay on feminist social analysis, but it seems to have no effect on the world or her. Meanwhile Lila's involvement in the workers' rebellions of the late 1960s is just one episode among many with no special reverberations.

Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack take the women believably from childhood to late middle age, but each in her own way has difficulty creating and sustaining a character made up of disconnected episodes.

We learn more about Lenu – the plays are, after all, the novels she is writing – but the character has so little self-awareness that we don't see her growing and learning from her own experience.

And Lila – remember again that this is the woman as seen by novelist Lenu – remains always more symbolic and enigmatic than the actress can flesh out.

Those who know and love Ferrante's books will of course want to see this staging, and perhaps their immersion in the world of the novels will fill in some of the gaps here. For anyone else it is heavy going, with too many of the rewards coming too early.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  My Brilliant Friend - National Theatre 2019
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