Review: My Brilliant Friend at Rose Theatre, Kingston

Elena Ferrante’s quartet of Neapolitan Novels have been a literary sensation since its first part, My Brilliant Friend, was published in 2012. A forthcoming Italian television adaptation will take 32 50-minute instalments to cover the story of the friendship between two Neapolitan women but April De Angelis has condensed the four into a single play, presented in two parts which can be viewed as a double bill or on separate evenings if 5 hours of theatre in a day seems like too much of a challenge.

However you look at it, it is an epic story, and an ambitious undertaking for Kingston’s Rose Theatre but one which De Angelis and director Melly Still tackle with gusto. Fans of the novels may find favourite segments or characters disappointingly missing but as with any adaptation, choices have to be made and these plays deserve to be judged on their own merits. And placing two women at their heart, exploring their friendship against the turbulent backdrop of post-WWII Italy makes them a refreshing change

Catherine McCormack as Lila

We first meet Elena, or Lenù, as a successful contemporary writer but we’re soon sucked into her retelling of her life-story and how her personal history has long been inextricably entwined with the vivacious Lila. Both intelligent, poverty and strict social convention forces them onto divergent grand narratives but never too far from each other, as they discover men, sometimes the same men, the Camorra rise in their pervasive influence to shape all of their lives and the sexual revolution offers the prospect of even more change as they become wives and mothers as well as activists and authors.

Niamh Cusack as Elena

In Soutra Gilmour’s open design, the action is complex and complicated by its varying use of theatrical language. Actors use their native accents and the passing decades are signified by pop hits in English; James Fortune’s music, by contrast, is unmistakably Mediterranean and its intermittent usage locates us firmly in Italy; and then there are moments of overt theatricality that are stunning, childhood fear of the dark represented by an amorphous mass of bodies, acts of violence perpetrated on empty dresses, almost as if we’re watching the women’s coping mechanism to deal with the trauma.

Thus there’s a lot to take in, and in a story where the programme offers a description of the ten family groupings featured plus the list of other characters, it does mean that narrative clarity isn’t always present. The 12-strong cast multi-role vividly and often highly amusingly though it can be difficult to be entirely sure who anyone is playing at any given moment. Fortunately, Catherine McCormack is electric as the scornful Lila, raging against the world almost from the word go with a seductive cynicism and Niamh Cusack’s Elena is thoroughly engaging as the possibly unreliable narrator who is just as manipulative, though much more secretively unscrupulous about it.

My Brilliant Friend is a striking achievement and if it gets messy and confusing at times, well so does life.

Ian Foster

My Brilliant Friend is staged in two 2.5 hour parts. You can book to see each part individually or both parts on a single day on the Rose Theatre website. The productions runs until April 2

Photos: Marc Brenner/Rose Theatre Kingston