Photos: Marc Brenner
The National presents a revived production of My Brilliant Friend on its largest stage, the Olivier, following a sold-out run at the Rose Theatre Kingston in early 2017. Adapted from Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, writer April De Angelis has crammed the contents of four books into two plays, each lasting nearly three hours, resulting in a pair of plays that feel rushed and lacking emotion.
The story centres on best friends Lenù and Lila, played by Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack respectively. Part One charts their lives from children growing up in Naples through adolescence to young adulthood, the two girls almost always by one another’s side. Act one introduces a whole community of characters, some evidently more important than others as the play progresses, begging the question of what their purpose is other than to create a bustling backdrop and uneasy threat of background violence.
The answer sadly doesn’t appear in Part Two. The earlier threat of the Solara family grows ever stronger, the plot moves to Florence and the tale details how the women have forged their own separate paths, but many of the earlier characters are either forgotten or seemingly unnecessarily reintroduced.
This isn’t to suggest the performances throughout aren’t strong – far from it, the entire company are excellent throughout. McCormack, in particular, delivers a consistent sense of unease and unpredictability. As Part One progresses, Cusack’s Lenù gets stronger, developing her own identity aside from Lila. In Part Two, Lila points out she was always “the bad one”, something confirmed by another character later in the play, and yet Lenù’s choices become questionable even if they are driven by a strong motive.
The set in both parts consists of the huge Olivier stage and a series of concrete steps on castors, moved around as necessary, and projections filling the space. However, this all drowns out the intimacy in many of the scenes in both parts, the actors struggling to draw an audience in whilst lost in the space. Even when the stage is at its most sparse, the characters feel too distant.
The biggest fault of the play is the tendency to rattle through as many scenes as possible, many of which only last a few minutes to touch on a plot point before rushing on to the next. Nothing is allowed to settle, there isn’t time for emotion to be felt or breathed, or for the audience to think about what has been witnessed, and this very much works against the play. For example, there are two memorable sexual assaults in Part One but rather than reflecting on their impact we’re whisked on to the next plot point, and the next, and the next. The use of popular music in the numerous scene changes, while useful in setting the scene of which era the action takes place, also punctuates in a jarring way.
There are many clever stylistic moments peppered throughout the play, in particular the use of puppetry of clothing during the aforementioned assaults being particularly striking. But this is contrasted with the use of blank puppets as our protagonists’ young children becoming a distraction rather than an integration into the play. Melly Still’s direction should be commended for the strong visual eye but the whiplash pace of the production and regular moving of the staircases reduced the opportunity for the audience to connect with the characters.
A good adaptation would ordinarily take key characters and plot points, build upon them and breathe new life into a story for a different audience. I can’t claim to have read Ferrante’s books and I’m sure De Angelis left out a lot of content, but unfortunately My Brilliant Friend feels bloated and unnecessarily long.