'My Brilliant Friend': Theater Review

Courtesy of Marc Brenner
From left: Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack in 'My Brilliant Friend'
Soapy and smart but very busy all at the same time.

Elena Ferrante's quartet of Neapolitan novels is brought to life at London's National Theatre, with Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack leading as two women who love and loathe each other over 60 years.

Compacting dozens of characters, four novels' worth of incident spanning roughly 60 years, a wodge of weighty themes to do with class, gender, 20th century politics, crime and punishment, and at the center of it all — the partridge in this Christmastime theatrical event — an intensely passionate, nonsexual relationship between two women magnificently played by Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack, the National Theatre production of My Brilliant Friend, which runs five hours in two parts, is a lot.

Mostly, it's a lot of juicy entertainment, an engaging soap-opera sprawl of a saga that fills the National's cavernous Olivier Theatre with rambunctious energy and noise, even if the set is little more than several interlocking staircases on wheels (designed, as are the costumes, by Soutra Gilmour), spinning around the revolving stage, standing in for the houses and streets of Naples and beyond. (The show is a transfer from the Rose Theatre in Kingston.) That said, it can also feel like a bit too much at times — shrill, broad and violently gestural, like a drunken wedding that's going on too long.

Maybe that's exactly the tone that director Melly Still and playwright April De Angelis are aiming for, at least some of the time, with this translation of Elena Ferrante's quartet of international best-selling novels. (The first of the books, titled My Brilliant Friend, served as the basis for the critically lauded HBO limited series, with a follow-up based on the second book in the works.) 

Elsewhere, it's more of a struggle to distill the novels' quieter, more intellectual concerns, their engagement with the porous, contingent nature of identity, how people "make" one another and especially how men construct women. Conversely, a major theme is also how easy it is for people to dissolve into their surroundings and disappear, like salt in water. That preoccupation with the elusive, fugitive nature of identity itself fits with the fact that "Elena Ferrante" is a pseudonym, the writer's real name remaining a mystery still. Like the disembodied dress that's so poignantly deployed on stage to stand in for a woman being raped or, later on, puppets to represent a pair of toddling little girls, "Elena Ferrante" is a cutout.

That's some deep, ontological dope the material is smoking, and the air gets pretty greasy with it as the show goes along. As does the literal air in the theater, the beams of light often revealing swirling particles from the real cigarettes smoked on stage throughout and the dry ice clouds wafting up from the orchestra pit. No wonder it all seems to get a bit out of the controlling hands of Still and the company at large, particularly in the second half. (The two parts can be seen on consecutive nights or over a single day.)

The show is nothing if not ambitious, especially if one considers that it's attempting to bring to life a highly original, deeply modern epic that isn't quite like anything else. It's certainly not a well-worn fairy tale or much discussed literary classic that's already had its grooves worn down by lots of previous adaptations, the HBO series notwithstanding.

Superficially, the Neapolitan Quartet is realist fiction, with lots of crime and historical material woven in and slathered with a fair quantity of lubricious sex. At one point in the show, a heckler at a literary gathering sneers that the novels Lenu (Cusack's character) writes are little more than bodice-rippers with pretensions, mirroring the criticism of Ferrante's work in the next meta level of reality. Offering self-criticism from the other direction, Lenu's best friend, Lila (McCormack), cuts down her literary efforts by deriding the coherence they make of the messy real lives that inspired them. "Only bad novels make the world coherent," she says scathingly.

Best frenemies from a girlhood spent in Naples' slums immediately after the end of WWII, Lenu and Lila are the twin suns around which the narrative's entire solar system revolves. Although Lenu, given to soliloquies that explain what's going on and what she's feeling, is effectively the narrator and spends more time on stage, Lila's angry voice as a child, and later as a nihilistic adult, rings out just as clearly, and nearly as often, throughout.

The irony of the title, My Brilliant Friend, is that while Lila uses it lovingly to describe Lenu, the endearment just as well fits what impostor-syndrome sufferer Lenu thinks of Lila, the latter being the one who teaches herself to read and write at age 4, who always wins the math contests at school and masters Latin on her own. But it's Lenu, with her marginally more nurturing family, who makes it to university, becomes a writer and marries into the middle class, while Lila gets trapped in an unhappy marriage and ends up toiling in a meat factory.

That paragraph outline above barely limns the trajectory of the first show's opening part. While all that's going on, both women fall in love and get their hearts broken by leftist philanderer Nino (Ben Turner), and make friends and fall out with other school mates who will prove important later on, all the while tussling with or avoiding members of the ruthless Solara clan, the local Camorra in their particular corner of Naples.

At Lila's factory, strikes break out sometime in the late '60s, around the same time Lenu's marriage to staid professor and would-be patriarch Pietro (Justin Avoth) falls apart. Years later, reconciled after rocky phases, the two women practically raise their two same-age daughters (the aforementioned puppets, manipulated and voiced by Victoria Moseley and Emily Wachter) communally before tragedy sweeps one child away.

Lithe and limber in their period frocks, Cusack and McCormack inhabit their characters all the way through, from doll-carrying tots to aged women, and the combustible chemistry between them keeps the show effervescent throughout, doing justice to Ferrante's infinitely nuanced portrait of female friendship. But this is no rah-rah cheer for sisterhood. The two shiv each other in the back just as often as they come running to one another's rescue, and admiration is revealed frequently to be just another kind of envy with pretty gilding.

Cusack's Lenu, so clearly the author's alter ego (Lenu is short for Elena), is awkward and jagged, but later elegant and cutting. McCormack brings to Lila exactly the kind of feline grace that makes the character so much both a heroine and a villain at once. Working with sketchier, less developed characters, the rest of the ensemble struggles sometimes to put flesh on the bones, but there are some standout turns from Kezrena James, who shows great comic flair as the loathsome reverse snob Eleanora, and Colin Ryan as a doomed trans figure.

Tal Yarden's silhouette- and archive-footage-heavy video projections work overtime to establish time frames, along with snatches from an eclectic range of period pop, providing a ghostly context for the drama happening downstage. At times, the effect is like being trapped in one long, frenetically cut montage. But again, that might be entirely intentional.

Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Niamh Cusack, Catherine McCormack, Justin Avoth, Adam Burton, Amiera Darwish, Trevor Fox, Danielle Henry, Martin Hyder, Kezrena James, David Judge, Wela Mbusi, Victoria Moseley, Emily Mytton, Al Nedjari, Mary Jo Randle, Jonah Russell, Colin Ryan, John Sandeman, Ira Mandela Siobhan, Babria Timini, Ben Turner, Emily Wachter, Toby Wharton, Elizabeth Mary Williams
Playwright: April De Angelis, based on Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Novels
Director: Melly Still
Set and costume designer: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting designer: Malcolm Rippeth
Music: Jim Fortune
Sound designer: Jon Nicholls

Movement director: Sarah Dowling
Video designer: Tal Yarden
Fight director: John Sandeman
Puppetry designer and director: Toby Olie
Presented by The National Theatre, in co-production with Rose Theatre Kingston