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  • Articles by Sonali

    Theatre review: My Brilliant Friend

    Elena Ferrante’s addictive Neapolitan Quartet novels have been adapted for the stage. The two part play at the Olivier Theatre takes its title from the first book in the series: My Brilliant Friend Part One covers the first two novels while Part Two looks at the last two. Together both parts run for five and half hours encompassing a timespan of sixty years. Sounds hectic? It is. But the story is anchored throughout by the friendship of the two female lead characters, Lila Cerullo and Lenu Greco.

    The story begins in Turin in the present day. Lila’s son Rino phones Lenu because his mother has disappeared, taking with her all evidence of her former life. Lenu is compelled to write down the story of their intertwined lives, to thwart Lila’s plan of leaving without a trace.

    From then on the play is set in Naples where we meet Lila and Lenu as six-year-old girls in the 1950s.  Actors Niamh Cusack (Lenu) and Catherine McCormack (Lila) play the characters from the outset even acting out the roles of the little girls with wide-eyed, childish mannerisms, which was odd to begin with but gradually became less obvious.

    The scene when the girls swap dolls defines the nature of their friendship. Lila is fiery and impulsive, throwing Lenu’s doll into the feared Don Achille’s cellar while Lenu is placid, following Lila’s example or observing her. The girls have much in common though. Both bright and imaginative Lila and Lenu grow up together against a patriarchal society underpinned by the Camorra (the Mafia in Naples).

    Any effort to mimic an Italian accent (let alone Neapolitan dialect) is cast aside here. This is especially noticeable when we meet the wider cast whose accents vary from East London to the regions. 

    The audience is quickly swept up into the story though and the combination of summery period costumes, the set consisting of four metal staircases on wheels is evocative of living in high rise tenements and the intermittent projections of concrete buildings against a backdrop of Mount Vesuvius  on the back wall helped to recreate the sun-baked urban environment of Southern Italy.

    The girls’ story takes place against the background of their wider community. The corrupting actions of the swaggering Solara brothers (agents of the Camorra) and the loan shark Don Achille, hinder progress in the town and in postwar Italy.

    April de Angelis’s engaging adaptation of the story stays true to the original, extracting key scenes in the order of the novel. This is a lively adaptation and the large stage at the Olivier is put to good use for instance in the scene where the girls go dancing at Rosa’s party, and at Lila’s wedding − complete with a brawl at the end. Pop music spanning six decades provides a soundtrack to the girls’ lives. In Part 2 puppets are utilised to represent Lila and Lenu’s respective daughters providing a novelty element. Perhaps the ever-present threat of violence in the book (and in the HBO adaptation) are missing here, brushed aside by the play’s brisk pace.

    It is left to Lila to embody a sense of melancholy and rage. This fury always lies under the surface of Catherine McCormack’s seething, shapeshifting, insightful portrayal. Lila is prone to outbursts as a young child. She is forced to work in her father’s shoe shop and is unable to finish her schooling.

    On the other hand Lenu (a porter’s daughter) is able to complete her education which elevates her. She eventually becomes a writer. Niamh Cusack captures Lenu’s deference for Lila based on an envy of her effortless brilliance at maths, latin and, later on, in designing shoes. Ben Turner is also convincing in his portrayal of the free thinking intellectual Nino Sarratore.

    Overall, Part 1 is more compelling than Part 2 (and it helped seeing both parts of the play on consecutive days). The production can be best summed up as a whistlestop tour but it serves as a good overview of the Neapolitan Quartet novels. The adaptation works well as far as new plays go which is down to the coherent and relateable story, giving a glimpse of Lila and Lenu's dysfunctional world and their struggle to thrive in it.

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