My Brilliant Friend, the first of Elena Ferrante’s wildly popular Neapolitan Novels was published in 2012, and swiftly followed in succeeding years by three similarly successful sequels. All four books – and their story of the intertwined lives of two women in Naples – were turned into a five-hour, two-part stage adaptation at the Theatre Rose Kingston in 2017.
That production – written by April De Angelis, directed by Melly Still and designed by Soutra Gilmour – has now travelled 10 miles downstream to the National Theatre, where it is being revived, slightly tweaked from its 2017 run, in the enormous Olivier auditorium until late February.
It still stars stage stalwarts Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack as Lenu, a porter’s daughter who grows up to become an author, and Lila, her equally intelligent but increasingly impulsive childhood friend. Ben Turner, Justin Avoth, Adam Burton and Ira Mandela Siobhan also feature in a large ensemble cast.
But do Ferrante’s four works successfully slide from page to stage? Does De Angelis’ adaptation adequately squeeze four novels into five hours of theatre? Do Still, Gilmour, Cusack and McCormack capture the best-selling brilliance of the books?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
De Angelis has crafted a career writing for theatre, opera and radio that has spanned three decades, but this is probably her biggest project to date – squeezing Ferrante’s four novels on to the stage. Does she do a good job?
Some critics think she does. Her adaptation is “a humane exploration of female friendship, class and social progress” according to Alexandra Pollard (Independent ★★★★), “a deeply satisfying day of theatre” according to Andrzej Lukowski (TimeOut ★★★★), and “a major theatrical achievement” that’s “big, bold and, yes – quite brilliant” according to Sam Marlowe (Metro ★★★★).
De Angelis conjures up “a complex knot of love, loyalty and loathing, of fierce pride and corrosive jealousy” against a “rich, sprawling evocation of 60 years of post-war Italian social history”, adds Marlowe. “The cumulative emotional force is seismic.”
Not everyone agrees, however – there’s too much ground to cover and not enough time. It ends up feeling like “a flip-book flurry of tiny scenes” with “precious little narrative drive” for Dave Fargnoli (The Stage ★★★) and “a pile-up of incident and characterisation” for Mark Shenton (LondonTheatre ★★★).
“It rushes along like a cartoon strip,” agrees Clive Davis (Times ★★). “Readers who love the books will probably be disappointed that much of the details and texture has been jettisoned. Newcomers will be baffled by the cascade of incident.”
“There are obvious complaints to make about this condensed version,” says Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph ★★★★). But ultimately, it has “such a core confidence of purpose and cohesion of artistry” that it serves as “a fine introduction to the richly conceived, unforcedly feminist world of Ferrante”.
Director Melly Still has worked at the National Theatre before – her production of Coram Boy premiered here in 2005, earning four Olivier award nominations, before transferring to Broadway, where it picked up five Tony nods. Since then, she’s worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Glyndebourne, the Lyric Hammersmith and more – her production of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin recently transferred from Kingston to the West End.
Her direction is definitely well received here. Her evocation of Naples is “ultra-dynamic” according to Lukowski, “full of lovely, imaginative touches” according to Crompton (WhatsOnStage ★★★), and “so vivid and visceral that you can almost taste it” according to Marlowe.
“Still handles it all with an impressive lightness of touch, keeping the ensemble surging about in the background of each short scene, filling in the play’s world with swaggering gangsters, promenading couples and crowds of busy, bickering housewives,” describes Fargnoli. “Infants are represented by baggy, brightly coloured dolls. A bloodied wedding dress is flung about during a distressing marital rape scene.”
That touch – the use of dresses to signify attacks on women – is particularly praised for how it allows the show to skirt gratuitous violence. “It works well,” says Pollard, “not least because it mirrors the way women often dissociate from the atrocities done to them.”
There’s also admiration for Tal Yarden’s projections – “Visually arresting backdrops of crashing waves, curling flames and scribbly sketches, evoking the text’s impressionistic collision of thoughts, memories and frustrated dreams,” says Fargnoli – and for Soutra Gilmour’s simple, staircase set.
It’s “simple but effective” for Davis and “flexible and efficient” for Fargnoli. It’s only Shenton that has something negative to say about it. According to him, it is “essentially one of the ugliest sets seen on the Olivier stage in a long time”.
Cusack and McCormack are centre stage, reprising their roles of Lenu and Lila from the Rose Theatre Kingston run. Both have had long, distinguished careers, and both are heaped with praise by the critics.
Cusack “vascillates wonderfully between longing and regret” according to Nick Curtis (Evening Standard ★★★★), is “remarkable as a woman grappling with being unremarkable” according to Pollard, while for Fargnoli, her Lenu is “a nervous bundle of conflicting needs, shy but desperate for approval, gentle but jealous”.
“Cusack’s ability to register each flicker or feeling as she negotiates her relationship with a woman she both admires and is envious of is unparalleled,” writes Crompton. “It is her face, full of complicated, unspoken, half-thought unease, regret and longing that powers the entire production.”
McCormack, meanwhile, is “magnificent at conveying Lila’s misdirected anger – a rage nurtured by years of disappointment, oppression and abuse,” writes Pollock, while Cavendish calls her “fiercely direct in her words” and “defiant in her looks”.
“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,” extols Lukowski.
Together, the two actors “hold the centre with a magnetic force, as convincing at 12 as at 60, circling each other with the passionate intensity of caged lionesses,” says Claire Armitstead (Guardian ★★★). “They are locked in orbit by their incendiary shared conviction.”
“Ultimately,” concludes Lukowski, “it’s about two towering performances, one delicate and nuanced, one dense and dark as a neutron star.”
There are certainly some that think so. It’s not earned any five-star raves, but strong four-star reviews from TimeOut, Metro, Telegraph, Evening Standard and the Independent mean there’s plenty of quotes for the poster. Others, though, aren’t so sure – The Stage, Guardian and others only award My Brilliant Friend three stars, and the Times only two.
Everyone essentially agrees that Cusack and McCormack are both on cracking form, and that Still’s direction deftly delves into Neapolitan life. The critics can’t make up their minds over De Angelis’ adaptation, though. Some reviewers think she evokes the atmosphere and events of the novels excellently, but others opine the opposite. For them, four best-selling books is just too much for five hours of theatre.