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Deeply Complex and Layered: My Brilliant Friend

13 March 2017

My Brilliant Friend
PARTS 1 and 2.

World Premiere

Adapted for the stage by April De Angelis from the novels of Elena Ferrante.

RTK at the Rose Theatre Kingston until 2nd April.

Review by Melissa Syversen.

Life is hard.   From the moment we are born, we set out on a journey that will be filled with extreme highs and lows.  Sure, there will be wonderful moments of pure love and ecstatic joy, but there will also be times of grief, pain and loss.  There will be challenges to overcome, victories to be had, but also times you’d like nothing more than to vanish off the earth.  If you are lucky you might just have someone to share all this with.  A support and confidant, that special someone who makes you laugh like no other but can also drive you up the wall like no other.  Someone who will stay with you even when they are absent.  This is what Elena Ferrante has captured so vividly in her acclaimed four-part series known as the Neapolitan Novels.  Her story of two extraordinary women and their friendship in post-war Italy, told over six decades, has fascinated readers all over the world.  Elena Ferrante has managed to encapsulate and put into words not just the intricacies of life but the complex layers of female friendship.  I have unfortunately not read the novels (yet) but it doesn’t take a lot of research to feel the fervour of joy from readers and critics alike for these books.

Adopting such complex and beloved novels is a daunting project.  April De Angelis however, has risen to the challenge and has expertly transposed the series’ four novels into four acts, creating a tight and compact play that is part memory play and coming-of-age-story, it is performed in two parts, of two and a half hours each, and can be seen either in a single day or over two evenings.

My Brilliant Friend Part 2. Photo credit Marc Brenner (6)

All photographs by Marc Brenner

An elderly Elena (also known as Lenú) comes home to a parcel containing two old dolls.  Shortly after she receives a call from the son of her childhood friend Lila, telling her that his mother has disappeared.  The play then follows Elena as she looks back on her life together with Lila and their intricate relationship, trying to understand what has happened to her.  The audience are whisked through her life, carried rapidly through memories of their formative years together in a poor Neapolitan neighbourhood.  The scenes change swiftly and sharply, deftly handled through Melly Still’s directing and Jon Nicholls’ clever use of era-contextual pop music and soundscapes that transports you to the bustling Italian streets.  The strong cast of twelve play multiple characters, constantly and impressively changing between the various important people in Elena’s life.  Due to the pace and structure it is sometimes difficult to follow who all the characters are and how they relate to each other.  It does become easier as we go along but do have a look at the character list in the program.  Also, the character of Alfonso is played by two different actors in the two parts so keep an eye out for his mustard yellow jumper.

Keeping with De Angelis’ writing, Melly Still’s directing is equally economic as it is elegant.  Old chairs and tables become luxury cars and fire pits.  Strips of plastic become the ocean, brown wrapping paper creates earthquakes.  Still has an eye for the visual, her productions have a cinematic feel.  Together with beautiful set and costume design by Soutra Gilmour and impressive lighting by Malcolm Rippeth she has created a world as malleable as Elena’s memories.  Set inside a three-story frame of industrial steel and concrete the stage can as easily create cold, harsh factory conditions as warm summer nights by the Mediterranean Sea.  The passing of time is mostly marked with costumes in the style of each of the decades.  Elena alone remains in the same blue dress throughout, a reminder that she is the constant in this as both narrator and character.  We are seeing this, and Lila, through her eyes.

 

As Elena, Niamh Cusack starts as a gentle, and somewhat awkward young girl. She is a sweet mix of insecurity and ambition.  As she grows she proves to be a woman of both strength and vulnerability.  Cusack manages to inhabit the constant contradicting emotions of a strong woman caught between tradition and modernity, motherhood and ambition.


The friendship between Elena and Lila is not an easy one.  There is a relationship built on mutual fascination and love but also rivalry.  There is a constant change of who is the brilliant leader and who is the follower.  As they age their lives diverge.  Elena steps into the world and becomes a successful writer, a dream Lila once had.  Lila is denied further education by her father and remains in Naples.  Catherine McCormack is pure passion as Lila.  She brings both a fire and vulnerability to Lila, breathing life to fiercely intelligent woman trapped among lesser often violent men.  Through sheer force of will she refuses to submit to her role and the expectations of women, sometimes even to reality itself.  This adaptation’s greatest success is arguably the creation of two deeply complex and layered women that will challenge and fascinate great actresses for years to come.

I suspect I might have benefited from not having read the novels before seeing this stage adaptation.  I am all too familiar with the frustration of having your favourite novels cut and condensed into pieces, but I think this adaptation (and world premiere!) by Rose Theatre Kingston gets it mostly right.  I spent five hours with these characters, and I find myself still thinking back on Lila and Elena, ruminating not only on their lives, but how it reflects my own.  I want to learn more about these two brilliant friends and fill in more of their stories that might have been missed in the adaptation.  So off to the bookstore I go.

Melissa Syversen

March 2017

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From → Drama, Reviews

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