Review: My Brilliant Friend, National Theatre

As with Ann Goldstein’s translation from Italian to English, April De Angelis’ stage adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels manages to preserve the voice of its author. Driven by the same breathless narrator, My Brilliant Friend captures perfectly the violence wrought by Ferrante’s storytelling. Performed live, this event provides an opportunity to worship her magical observations, and a space in which to immerse oneself in the enchanting, yet disarming quality of her words.

Set during the 1950’s in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood on the outskirts of Naples, My Brilliant Friend centres around the friendship of Lila Cerullo (played by Catherine McCormack) and Elena – or Lenu – Greco (Niamh Cusack). When, in 2010, Lila takes it upon herself to disappear, Lenu makes a counterattack. Determined to pin down some fragment of her companion, she decides to pen their story. 

Framed by a series of imposing concrete steps, the Olivier stage is full of dank, dark shadows. Designed by Soutra Gilmour, corrugated iron bannisters twist like roots, dull against a backdrop of screens. Lit from within, a Grave Trap is characterised by a metal grill. It is as if the underbelly of the town is guarded by a mouth, its teeth bared and breathing smoke. Dressed in voluminous blue smocks, Cusack and McCormack quickly regress into a childlike state. Reminiscent of Dennis Potter’s Blue Remembered Hills, adults play their younger selves with verve, growing slowly into their maturing bodies.

Lila and Lenu are two young women transformed by their education and capacity for learning. As Lila, McCormick is hypnotic. Almost feral in her fearlessness, the intelligence of her character proves devastating. All too soon, she becomes the lightning rod for all of Lenu’s actions. For Lenu, (played astutely by Cusack) freedom from her working-class roots lies within promises pressed into the pages of books. For both, knowledge is power, though Lila’s intellect – which should serve to liberate her – acts more like a cage, binding her to the prison that she calls home.

Unfortunately, My Brilliant Friend doesn’t quite capture Lenu’s individualism, or the uniqueness of her mind away from Lila’s. Nor does it manage to convey the intoxicating nature of their relationship, though the action itself feels alcoholic. Directed by Melly Still, instances of choreography serve to speed up and slow down time, with some scenes touched by flavours of the avant-garde. Here, any hardships that riddle this town become carnivalesque. Explosive bursts of music and sound narrate transitions, the increasingly bloodstained cast akin to that of a Tarantino epic. 

The pace on stage mirrors that of the page. Marked by short, sharp chapters, the quartet – four books at 300-500 words a piece, are each reduced to just over an hour in length. In this, My Brilliant Friend retains its restless energy – an element furthered by a constant collision of British regional accents and RP. This works to communicate the same, significant divide Ferrante draws between her characters’ use of the Italian language and dialect, and does so skilfully. 

Branded with De Angelis’ trademark feminist wit, My Brilliant Friend makes for a heady meditation on patriarchal oppression. With many of its female subjects disfigured – be it physically or emotionally – by the actions of their male counterparts, it is a poignant narrative for our times. Above all, this story challenges the nuances particular to a man’s world, relishing the endless possibilities (and seeming dangers) posed by the presence of a well-read woman.

My Brilliant Friend is playing at the National Theatre until 22 February. For more information and tickets, visit the National Theatre website.