It was 2016 when I first picked up a copy of Elena Ferranté’s My Brilliant Friend. The same day, I had received the news that a friend of mine had passed away, which resulted in the book remaining unfinished.
That was until the National Theatre announced they were going to stage My Brilliant Friend earlier this year, and I revisited the book I had bought over three years earlier. I’m glad I did.
The novels are highly detailed and intimate, and I was intrigued to see how they would stage work which is so epic in its proportions. The running time did not deter me; in fact, I was thrilled to have 5 full hours rediscovering the characters that I had found so engrossing when reading the books.
My Brilliant Friend was previously staged at The Rose in Kingston and was reworked for the much larger space offered by the Olivier Theatre. I was blown away by the combination of Meep Still’s direction, April De Angelis’ script and Soutra Gilmour’s set. The characters appear and melt away seamlessly, in and around the industrial–looking staircases symbolising the ever-changing landscape of Italy. The detailed performances from the ensemble cast coupled with all the practicalities of the actors moving huge pieces of set around is a sight to behold.
The music underscore, which ranges from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas to Carly Simon, works well as an indicator of the passage of time. The script remains true to the books in many ways – each act telling a story from one of the novels. The whole thing begins with the central characters Lenù and Lila, two young girls from Naples playing with their dolls, and then follows them on their journey into womanhood navigating love, loss, education and friendship.
Niamh Cusack’s naive yet frustrating Lenù contrasts well with Catherine McCormack’s bright but cruel Lila. Both actresses give dynamic performances, whether they are playing children or adults. Still’s sensible choice to have an age and race-blind cast is to be praised, especially with so much story to cover, although it is perhaps disappointing that the production made intrinsically Italian characters so decidedly British. As a result, roles such as Lenù’s Mother are distorted to the stuff of pantomime, which cheapens some moments such the scene in which Lenù brings her husband-to-be (Justin Avoth) home for the first time.
Despite this, Still stays true to the books in that the dramatic choices are not there to entertain. When Lenù says: “until we write our own stories, we won’t know who we are” it is delivered with an earnestness that reverberates in your ears long after the curtain falls and acts as a headline for what this story is really about.
The moments in which Lenù experiences the humiliation of being compared to Lila are hard to watch and by the time we are on to the final act you realise that the female characters of Ferranté’s world are not meant to be sympathetic but instead are complex and true to life. All this means that many may leave the National Theatre feeling conflicted and possibly cheated, but really My Brilliant Friend marks a new dawn of female characterisation on stage.