The Theatreguide.London Review
My Brilliant Friend (Parts I and II)
Olivier Theatre Winter 2019-2020
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
The novels follow two
working-class girls from Naples
to womanhood through the second half of the Twentieth Century.
(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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
The dramatic mode of
adapter De Angelis and director Melly
Still is inventive but fraught with problems not all solved.
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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