When a pair of ragged, decades-old dolls are anonymously delivered to the home of a respected author, they trigger a flood of difficult memories from a lifetime of callous betrayals, casual brutality and enduring love.
Tracking a tumultuous 50-year friendship between two women from the slums of Naples, April De Angelis’ sprawling two-part adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s bestselling Neapolitan Novels – which began with 2011’s My Brilliant Friend – walks a fine line between sweeping family melodrama and moving memory play.
Though tightly written and populated by a large cast of compelling characters, the story’s rapidly shifting focus can leave the production feeling breathless, a flip-book flurry of tiny scenes itemising the painfully believable brutalities often perpetrated against women, with precious little narrative drive beyond the mere passage of time.
Framing the story, Niamh Cusack plays writer Lenù as a nervous bundle of conflicting needs, shy but desperate for approval, gentle but jealous. As she alternately struggles to support or exceed her only friend, we watch her adopting airs and graces, distancing herself from her former life.
Opposite her, Catherine McCormack stands out as the brilliant Lila, intellectually and artistically gifted, but born into a crushingly poor, suffocatingly patriarchal culture which beats her down relentlessly.
As the years wear on, McCormack conveys every flash of ferocious passion and brilliance beneath Lila’s increasingly jaded and embittered persona.
Among a large ensemble, Ira Mandela Siobhan’s smirking mafioso Marcello cuts a memorable figure, oozing confidence and dangerous unpredictability. Ben Turner, too, gets plenty to do as Nino, the charming student and eventual academic who becomes emotionally tangled in both protagonists’ lives.
Each of these lives is distorted by the sexism embedded in their society.
Men are reduced to demanding, domineering caricatures, while the women weather continual aggression, from implicit threats to overt assaults. Workers leer and whistle at passing schoolgirls. Lila’s father throws her through a window for contemplating higher education.
Director Melly 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.
Puppets and manipulated textiles become stand-ins for the performers during some significant moments. Infants are represented by baggy, brightly coloured dolls. A bloodied wedding dress is flung about during a distressing marital rape scene.
Though largely nondescript, Soutra Gilmour’s set is flexible and efficient, a series of sliding concrete staircases supported on a scaffold of bare wood and rusty pipes. Animated projections by Tal Yarden form visually-arresting backdrops of crashing waves, curling flames and scribbly sketches, evoking the text’s impressionistic collision of thoughts, memories and frustrated dreams.