A tumultuous female friendship encompassing love, violence, ambition and self-destruction across 60 years of postwar Italian history is explored by Elena Ferrante in her celebrated Neapolitan novels which has transferred to the stage in Melly Still's two-part, five-hour adaptation of My Brilliant Friend (NT's Olivier Theatre).
When the most important person in her life goes missing without a trace, Lenu Greco, now a celebrated author, begins to recall a relationship that lasted from 1952 to 2011. First meeting on the dangerous streets of Naples, friends Lila, a shoemaker's daughter, and Lenu, a porter's daughter, experience turbulent social and political change from the rise of the Camorra to the sexual revolution and the transformation of their city and nation. Even as life repeatedly tries to pull them in separate directions, they remain inextricably bound to one another.
This is an ambitious, marathon task for director Melly Still and adaptor April De Angelis, and it does have its longeurs. Furthermore the volume of incident is hard to follow at times. But what really weakens this production is the crude, expletives-ridden language, with the cast using a variety of accents. The violence experienced by Lila is done to dresses manipulated by puppeteers, who later animate the two women's daughters.
Soutra Gilmour's set features endless reconfigurable concrete stairwells conjuring cheek by jowl tenements, shops, bridges and tunnels, which are both annoying and economical, in front of a series of video screens that show in an underclass exploited by politicians, capitalists, gangsters and religion, it's always women who come off worst.
It is the two excellent lead performances, however, that really define this production. Niamh Cusack–who is on stage virtually throughout–vacillates between longing and regret as lenu, conveying her doggedness and determination, while showing how she grows into a fiercely independent woman. Catherine McCormack, meanwhile, with wintry resentment etched on her face, implies there is always an inner fire in Lila, even when she becomes the successful head of a computer company. The two actors are strongly supported by a well-drilled ensemble.
Music, too, is adroitly used, whether it be 1950s pop or Purcell's haunting creation of Dido's lament, a reminder that Lila was the first of the two friends to read The Aeneid, at a precociously early age.
My Brilliant Friend
In rep to February 22.
Box office: 020 7452 3000.Last modified: April 6, 2021