My Brilliant Friend
by Elena Ferrante
Adapted for the stage by April de Angelis
Directed by Melly Still
Set and costume design by Soutra Gilmour
Composer – James Fortune
The Rose Theatre, Kingston
Sunday 26th March 2017, 14.30 and 19.30
Niamh Cusack – Lenu
Catherine McCormack – Lila
Justin Avoth – Antonio / Petro / Fernando
Adam Burton – Michele / Reno / Dede
Martin Hyder – Don Achille / Donato / Enzo
Ira Mandela Siobhan – Marcello / Alfonso (Part 1)
Victoria Moseley – Gigliola / Lydia
Emily Mytton – Melina / Maestra Oliviero / Manuela / Elsa
Jonah Russell – Stefano / Alfonso (Part 2)
Badria Timimi – Nunzia / Professor Galiani / Adele / Elisa
Emily Wachter – Pini / Immaculata / Nadia
Toby Wharton – Nino / Pasquale
Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet spread like wildfire among most of the women I know. Its appeal transcended age, job, and nationality. Italian, French, German and American friends seemed as entranced by it as the British ones. April de Angelis has condensed the four meaty novels into two plays, which can be seen separately, or as here, both together in one day. Thank goodness for The Rose’s clear booking system which meant you just clicked to see both online, and got one ticket for both performances in the same seat. That’s a lesson for Chichester where booking a “three plays in a day” special means three separate efforts and three different lots of seats.
Critics maintain it’s a five hour feast, and one review at least says five and a half hours. Wimpy reviewers. No, it’s not THAT long. I say that as a proud survivor of John Barton’s ten play version of Tantalus. A person in front of us asked. Part one first act, 1 hour 18 minutes, second act 1 hour 3 minutes. Part two act one 1 hour 15 minutes, part two act two 1 hour 10 minutes including long applause. I make it four and three quarters, plus intervals. It flies by because it is constantly changing and moving.
The production of this play version is spiced by various revelations, such as that the author did not actually grow up in Naples and is of German-Jewish origin. Or not. Hey, it’s called FICTION. That hasn’t stopped biographical delving, which is inevitable with a story by a successful novelist called Elena writing about a successful novelist called Elena, or Lenu for short. Listening to April de Angelis on Radio Four, there was one tantalising hint. She says that after the first night the publisher passed on Ms Ferrante’s “thanks” to her for the results of her adaptation. Ah, so was Elena Ferrante, as famously anonymous as J.D. Salinger, Thomas Pynchon or Carlos Castaneda, sitting out there watching it? We’ll leave the speculation there.
I’m fond of Naples, where I’ve had two of the best meals of my life. The ambiguity was there on a visit in the early 80s.
‘Leave your valuables in your hotel room,’ I was warned by my Italian hosts. There’s a great deal of mugging.’
‘Hang on,’ I said, ‘Everywhere else in Italy, you told me not to leave anything in my room.’
‘Ah, Naples is different. It’ll be totally safe here. It’s a legitimate enterprise of a certain organisation. No one would dare steal from guests.’
Commentators say that Elena Ferrante never mentions the Mafia by name. Why would she? The Mafia are Sicilian. She does mention the Camorra, the Neapolitan equivalent.
The thing that intrigued me in the April de Angelis interview was the issue of whether you already knew the story. The interviewer had only read the first novel and enjoyed the play, as had Michael Billington on just the first book. Good news for me. I haven’t read a word, though we had enquired about getting the audiobook from the USA for the car. My companion had devoured all four novels one after the other. So one of us will be advantaged, but which one? Often detailed knowledge of an original novel destroys any possible enjoyment of a film or stage adaptation. So advantage to me. On the other hand, it’s said to be a dense and convoluted tale. Advantage to her.
I’m treating it as one play in four parts, and I think April de Angelis said each act is one of the four books. Well, I could follow the story, and because I didn’t know what was going to happen I was on the edge of my seat for much of it. Twelve actors play forty-five parts, and as Lenu (Niamh Cusack) and Lilia (Catherine McCormack) stay in the single roles, that’s ten people dividing up forty three. The costumes changes are fluid and rapid. Only Lenu stays in the same shapeless blue dress throughout … it’s only in the last two minutes that she adds a jacket and court shoes. That places her outside the story as well as participating. The cast, including Lilia and Lenu, play the entire age range from children to elderly.
Lenu (Niamh Cusack) with baby Imma.
In part four, the two children, Tina and Imma, are featureless towelling puppets, one blue, one pink, around life size, manipulated by two puppeteers. You wouldn’t think it would work, but it does. Otherwise, Lenu mimes feeding a baby. The toddler Tina does what toddlers do and sticks her head up Lenu’s skirt. The children are such a major part of the tale, Tina, like her mother Lila with Lenu, being the brighter of the two.
Lila’s wedding to Stefano. Lila (Catherine McCormack), Stefano (Jonah Russell)
The adaptation into a play moves from intimate emotional scenes, to extreme violent action, through dance, and mime to hilarious comedy to tragedy. This happens seamlessly through dozens of scenes. There is so much brutality and overt violence towards women, yet it is done by attacking the clothes rather than the person, as in the rape scene on Lila’s wedding night. Conversely, Lila and Lenu’s “fantasy” attack sequence on the Solara brothers, the Camorra pair, is done as real with bloody eyeballs hanging out. So real violence is mimed, fantasy is bloody. Right from the start when the six year old Lenu and Lila discuss their terror of Don Achille, the loan shark, who stuffed children in his black sack, the black sack full of writhing bodies is manifested.
OK, I haven’t read the books, but Niamh Cusack came across as a perfect Lenu, detached, worried, observing, while Catherine McCormack brings Lila to life, cynical, gaunt, fiercely intelligent, put down. Those who’ve read the books tell me they have created them perfectly for the stage. They are both tour de force acting performances, all the better for being so reactive to each other. For a moment you think type-casting. But not at all. I recall Niamh Cusack as the snooty and elegant countess in The Rehearsal at Chichester, which couldn’t be more different.
The set of rusty fire escapes and rusting double doors as if to a meat safe, and another as a battered up-and-over garage door would serve West Side Story well, and is another success for Soutra Gilmour, currently also running at the National Theatre with Twelfth Night. It utilises the full three storey height of the Rose Theatre, which is a modern interior based on the shape of the Elizabethan Rose Theatre, which neighboured the Globe, and whose foundations can be seen. It’s an extremely tall space, and the actors have to use all the stairs. The two upper storeys have transparent gauze or paper covers, and can be lit internally so that action behind them is seen as silhouettes in rooms. The theatre shape ensures that every seat feels close to the action. It claims to be the first new theatre of the 21st century. It would be a good template for more.
The play is propelled by a lighting plot which must be the most intricate and best executed of the year (Malcolm Ripeth) and an equally powerful sound design (Jon Nicholls). The sound track barely stops: we have original music, found music, street sounds, sudden loud clashes on transitions, explosions, sea noise. At some points the music track is attuned to a single line of dialogue, and matched perfectly … we’ve heard a bit of All The Way by Frank Sinatra, it fades away, the lines continue then the instrumental end comes back in with a final line. Sorry, sound and lights was my area of expertise, and I can’t praise both highly enough. The found music takes us through the play’s fifty plus years timeline, from 50s Italian pop, to early 60s to soul and then disco.
Lila and Lenu as school kids
They state in the programme their decision to go with the actors’ natural preferred regional accents rather than imposing a particular British Isles regional accent (say) on all the Neapolitans … who in Italian would be extremely distinctive. It works, because everyone has a light clear accent, which is not always the case. You usually get one or two that are hard to follow when left to their own devices. It comes out so well when Lenu has sex with the ageing poet (Martin Hyder) and declares, dropping from her mild Irish inflection into the full-on Irish accent I’ll cut your fucking balls off … in the dialect of my youth. Liverpudlian was one that worked particularly well. They do make the Florentines, Pietro and his mother, RP, which would be a similar contrast in Italian. My only surprise, last having seen Catherine McCormack in Dancing at Lughnasa in Belfast is that she didn’t have an Irish accent. But if Lenu and Lila had both had Irish accents, you would have felt compelled to follow it for all the Neapolitans. The Solara brothers worked so well in mild Estuary.
What of the other roles? Emily Mytton had the most rapid and extreme shifts, from Melina, the coarse love struck cleaner to Maestra, the schoolmarm, to Manuela Solara the evil godmother of the Comorra family. She gets in three other parts too. Her whole gait and stance alters completely from role to role. My support actress of the year, I suspect! As Maestra, she reminded me of watching lessons in Italian schools conducted by absolute martinets who made kids raise their hands and stand to speak … with all the adults playing primary kids.
Meet the Greco Family: Peitro (Justin Avoth) is arm-wrestled by Lenu’s brother Peppe (Jonah Russell)
Justin Avoth shone as Pietro, the Latin professor who Lenu marries. Costume was perfect (Soutra Gilmour did costume too). I met so many Italian males like that in my 1980s travels doing teacher training in Italy. Tweed jacket, woollen buttoned waistcoat, tie, corduroy trousers (baggy), brown shoes, longish hair, beard. He should have had a cold pipe to clench though. They all did. Perhaps fake leather patches on the elbows. The badges of the intellectual. I was in my mid thirties, and Italian teachers couldn’t believe I was an author for Oxford University Press … they said any Italian male of my age would have tried hard to look 15 or 20 years older as a sign of intellectual status. Justin Avoth’s Pietro was one of the great comedy points of the play. He was especially well-clad when he dropped his jacket and had twin matching cardie and woolly waistcoat. Back to Pietro, the scene where he first has sex with Lenu is conducted in pitch darkness with his monologue voiceover, and I have to say the roars of laughter from the females around me were … er … disquieting.
Nino (Toby Wharton) and Lenu (Niamh Cusack)
Nino, the other would-be intellectual (and in his case, philandrering swine) is another fine intellectually pompous creation from Toby Wharton. It was guys like that in Italian education that had fourteen year olds starting on English Literature long before they could speak English even moderately, and of course logic dictated they start with Chaucer and follow on chronologically. In the 80s I attended so many conference seminars on how to cope with that ludicrous idea. On pretentiousness, I loved the bit on the beach when they’re all discussing Beckett’s Happy Days. A playwright’s revenge I suspect … my companion can’t recall whether it’s in the books.
The same 1980s English Language teacher training excursions, when I was around Naples, took me into secondary schools, and I recall my shock at the black fascist graffiti shouting at the red hammer and sickles on the walls. It’s all in the play.
Emily Wachter had a range from the elderly irascible mother of Lenu, to the aggressive gangster’s moll. As the mother, she had an eye patch and long black cloak, and she summed up the wonderfully age blind concept of the play where every actor played very young, adult and older. You grasped the concept right at the start and it held.
Marcello (Ira Mandel Siobhan). Lila (Catherine McCormack with the knife)
Ira Mandela Siobhan’s major role was Marcello Solara, the main Camorra gangster, aided by Adam Burton as his brother. The range of roles saw Ira in short trousers as the young Alfonso in part one too. Both Solaro brothers were sleek and smooth in black suits, white shirts. Both great movers, whether dancing to We Are Family, or writhing to death when shot.
My companion says it was all extremely faithful to the book, right down to the description of the man’s coat Lila wears when she’s working hauling sides of meat in a salami factory. One thing that was more pointed, perhaps because so many subplots had to be removed, was the relationship to writing fiction. Lila is the first to write, The Blue Fairy as a child. Lenu becomes the famous writer, but there are two scenes where Lila hands Lenu her diaries, asking her not to read them. Of course she does, and reads the description of Lila’s sexual attraction to Nino, who she wants herself. Then we cut to extracts from Lenu’s book with people complaining about the explicit sex scenes. We feel she lifted them straight from Lila … which is the key question. In fiction we might take inspiration from a person’s life or actions or anecdotes. But who is the creator? This came up in my writing on music, in particular on The Band. Levon Helm thought that Robbie Robertson’s songwriting was inspired by Levon’s own anecdotes and life, and groused about credit. However, all writing takes inspiration from something. Lila says she doesn’t write novels, she lives the events. So is Lenu exploiting her in writing it down?
The end? My companion thought they’d skip the events somehow, but they don’t. It’s totally chilling. No plot spoilers for those who are going to see it, and who like me, have not read the books.
Overall? My companion, Karen, is generally one star lower than me in rating plays. This time?
Both five stars.
My old gripe, of course the music is not credited in the programme, though even the theatre bar staff are. The choices are careful. Purcell’s Dido’s Lament refers to Lila reading The Aenid in the plot. Connie Francis’s Where The Boys Are comes at just the right place in part one – if we are describing it in four parts. In the interval between parts one and two, they played most of The Beatles Please Please Me album. In Part 2, we have Sinatra on All The Way, Bob Dylan on Blowing In The Wind, The Beatles on Ask Me Why, Jimi Hendrix on Purple Haze and Voodoo Child. For me, it meant I was constantly oriented as to when things were happening, or where we were in the timeline. Part 2 closes with Aretha Franklin I Say A Little Prayer. Part 3 has We’ve Only Just Begun by The Carpenters. Part 4 was especially rich with Walking On The Moon by The Police, A Thin Line Between Love and Hate by The Persuaders, and so appropriately for the Camorra, Sister Sledge on We Are Family (great dancing from the Solaras) then the beautifully apt Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper. There was more that I can’t recall, which is why it should all be listed in the programme!
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Michael Billington, The Guardian ****
Claire Allfree, The Telegraph, ****
Susannh Clapp, Observer, ****
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard ****
Kate Lloyd, Time Out, ****
Tim Bano, The Stage ***
Francesco Angelini, Sunday Times, ***
Alexander Gilmour, Financial Times, ***
Ann Trenana, The Times **
(The Times also gave 2 stars to Julius Caesar and A Midsummer Night’s Dream this fortnight… it really smacks of making a name by being contrary!)
LINKS ON THIS BLOG
MELLY STILL – Director
Cymbeline – RSC 2016
SOUTRA GILMOUR – Design
Twelfth Night, National Theatre, 2017
The Homecoming, Harold Pinter, Trafalgar Studios, 2015
Hecuba by Marina Carr, Royal Shakespeare Company, 2015
The Hot House by Harold Pinter, Trafalgar Studios
Macbeth, Trafalgar Studios, 2013
The Merry Wives of Windsor – RSC 2012 (Master Page)
A Midsummer Night’s Dream – Headlong 2011 (Theseus / Oberon)