LYNNE WALSH sees a theatrical adaptation which fails to penetrate the surface of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels
My Brilliant Friend
Rose Theatre, Kingston
THERE is a particular disappointment life can bring when two women, who have shared an intense and intimate friendship, drift apart and the closeness dissipates.
That’s the lasting emotion after experiencing five hours of this version of Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels spanning the post-war period to the near present.
It’s brought to the stage for the first time in this adaptation by April di Angelis.
The episodic nature of the material, charting the often tempestuous friendship of Lenu and Lila against a turbulent period of Italian history, has driven readers to devour Ferrante’s work but in the theatre there’s little sense of the novels’ mounting sense of fear, anger or despair.
The constant reminder that “the pram in the hallway is the enemy of good art” is a cliche and as a theme here it elicits little response.
There is, however, a sharp intake of breath by the Rose audience when Lenu’s lover, the writer Nino (Toby Wharton, charmingly spineless) confesses that he had passed off her work as his own.
It seems significant, in a drama where both the Camorra and the Red Brigade loom large, that the most shocked response is to the theft of intellectual property.
There are facets that sparkle, certainly. Niamh Cusack as Lenu is a wiry force propelled by emotions, struggling to hold onto a sense of self.
Catherine McCormack’s Lila is perfectly enigmatic, a sort of maverick savant with her occasional psychotic or fugue moments, she raises troubling questions about her defiance. As Lenu says of her: “She’s too brave; she won’t submit to reality.”
And this is a polished, if not brilliant, production. Director Melly Still has the cast sticking to their own accents and their banter, insults and declarations of love are authentic and passionate.
The choreography is stunning.
Yet there’s a strong sense that the audience is waiting for a big “reveal,” some psychological pivot providing a deeper sense of meaning. The author says she has no passion for politics, yet this permeates the narrative.
As teenagers in 1950s Naples, the two are defined according to the submissive roles of women around them, their mothers included. They must teach themselves to read, or beg their fathers for an education, while boys and men in the neighbourhood simply choose to be poets.
There are raped wives, groomed teenagers, women abused and abandoned. Sexual politics controls and dictates these women’s possibilities.
The struggle at the heart of the tale is one of moving outside the limits imposed. Lenu and Lila exist in a liminal state where the former can find success only by telling her friend’s story.
Lina exists as a catalyst, surrendering her life story to her diaries and “giving” her narrative to communist activists who use it to attack factory owners.
There is theft of words, identity, self-determination and, ultimately, a child.
With a storytelling that’s full of colour and incident, this would make a good box-set binge for TV.
But, as it stands, is it a feminist work? I doubt it.