My Brilliant Friend is one brilliant failure

Adapting Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan Quartet to stage proves too great a task for April de Angelis. 

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This discussion of the stage adaptation of My Brilliant Friend contains spoilers for all four novels in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet.

Early in Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, the adolescent narrator snatches a moment with her new body in the mirror. “I began to suspect that I would keep changing, until from my mother would emerge, lame, with a crossed eye, and no one would love me anymore.”

It is a moment entirely absent from April de Angelis’ two-part stage adaptation of Ferrante’s novel series, which opened yesterday at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. de Angelis has set herself a Herculean labour of literature, adapting all four novels of Ferrante’s best-selling Neapolitan Quartet – My Brilliant Friend is only the title of the first – into five hours of live theatre.  

Compression is inevitable. As a best outcome, Ferrante fans could only expect de Angelis to curate a selection of the fiercest moments in Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo’s lifelong friendship. (Elena is the narrator; Lila is her ‘brilliant friend’ – or is Elena the brilliant one?) But as well as a story of competitive sisterhood, the Neapolitan Quartet is also a story of how women come to inhabit their mothers’ bodies. For a genre predicated upon the exposed body – the actor’s presence – it’s odd to see any stage adaptation so underplay a novelist’s insight into female physicality.

In the first act of Melly Still’s production there is much that is promising. The raucous poverty of mafia-ridden Naples is established early, as laundry and loiterers hang over three stories of balconies in the Rose’s high-arching auditorium. This is the atmosphere of the rione – rendered ‘the neighbourhood’ in Ana Goldstein’s superb translation – the seamy quarter controlled first by loan-shark Don Achille, then by the flashy Solara brothers and their silent, widowed mother. Soutra Gilmour’s design conjures conventional Mediterranean squalor and flashes of glamour from the rione’s Sophia Loren wannabes.

Here, young Elena meets Lila, who seems to be more brave, more rebellious and more brilliant – but Lila’s parents have no truck with secondary education for girls. From then onwards, as Elena climbs the academic ladder towards an educated escape from poverty, she wrestles with the guilt of leaving Lila behind. If nothing else, de Angelis’ adaptation captures powerfully this drama of divided loyalty.

Niamh Cusack is one of the country’s most intuitive actresses. As Elena, she is by turns soft and sharp, narcissistically idealistic in her standards for herself and for the world. Catherine McCormack’s mesmeric Lila is more brittle and cynical. In Ferrante’s novels, Lila is created for us only through Elena’s distant, often jealous gaze. (Life might be better for Elena, but who wouldn’t be jealous of Lila? She harbours secret sexual knowledge, even as Elena speeds ahead with Virgil; she holds gangsters in the palm of her hand even when she’s reduced to life as a sausage factory worker.) So it is a tall order for any adaptation to transform the literary outlines of such a woman into a solid figure before our eyes. McCormack manages it masterfully. She’s helped into her fantasy portrayal by a whirlwind of changing costumes; as reliable, drab Elena, Cusack remains sartorially constant in a blue smock. If there is a reason to sit through the full slog of this adaptation it is to soak up the work of these two fine actresses.

The rest is largely disappointment. Perhaps those of us who have successfully spun 1600 pages of prose into a play should throw the first stones. With any abridgement of a much-loved work of literature, there is a tendency for reviews to become exercises in complaint about favourite moments or characters lost. There are many such absences to pick from here. Where is Ada, the fallen woman exploited by Lila’s husband? Or Gino, the thuggish boy who grows up to revel in killing for the Solaras? Even the story of well-meaning Antonio, who vainly resists the gangsters’ grip, is grossly contracted. Elena’s childhood friend Pasquale still pops up as a fascist-killing member of the Red Brigades, but the childhood injustice that propels his hatred of gangster-capitalists is woefully underplayed.

Other choices seem false economies. Alfonso, the transgender younger brother of Lila’s first husband, still gets plenty of stage time. But gone is the moment when, well into adulthood, Elena finally discovers his preference for men – and learns that Lila, always smarter, always trusted with secrets, has discreetly known for years.

But it is the abridgement of maternity that seems the greatest misstep. In the novel, Lila and Elena express their social aspirations as they compete to raise their children. When Lila gives up on life, she gives up on educating her son and even, cruelly, her nephew. The play still turns on a mother’s worst nightmare. The clue is in the title of Ferrante’s last novel: The Story of the Lost Child. But the fates of Elena and Lila’s youngest children, delicately given life as towelled puppets, seem little more than an excuse for the final divergence between their mother’s lives. ‘We are mamas of you both and we love you both’, Lila tells Elena’s daughter in the novel. When tragedy strikes one mother, but not the other, the bankruptcy of such sisterly sentiment is twice as harsh in prose, oddly abstract in drama.

Similarly, we lose Elena’s struggles with her older daughters; her horror at her menstrual, then menopausal body. Her airily liberal husband Pietro, the eligible stock of intelligentsia royalty, still turns out to be a hypocrite when it comes to women’s liberation. But gone is the pivotal conversation in which he demands, in ultra-Catholic terms, that she abjure the Pill rather than spend a few child-free years on her own career; gone too is Elena’s detailed description of contraception’s ravages upon her body when she finally obtains it.

Mothers are flat, monstrous figures. Pietro’s mother makes brief appearances as a superficial, heartless intellectual.  Elena’s mother Immacolata becomes a bitter, vengeful harridan with comedy eye patch and the habit of black nun (played by Emily Wachter). Sure, that’s how she appears in Ferrante’s first novel, but by the end of the series Elena has come to appreciate her love, as well as her broken history.

Even the Catholicism which plays such a part in provincial, mafia-ridden mindset of Elena’s childhood neighbourhood, is underwritten. True to the novel, Immaculata rages when her daughter refuses to marry her trendy atheist fiancé in church; gone, however, is the gentle moment when, in her last days, she murmurs: “you’re right not to baptize the baby, it’s nonsense; now that I’m dying I know that I’ll turn into little bits and pieces.”

The absence of religion is noticeable because at its best, My Brilliant Friend is also a life history of post-war Italy. Here, de Angelis’ adaptation finds its strong narrative arc: for once, abridgement is judicious, with welcome streamlining of the novel’s endless factory riots and fascist-communist flashpoints. Although Jon Nicholls’ portentous soundscape is intrusive – bells clang at moments of melodrama - the soundtrack provides good fun as it marks the era’s changes from Bill Haley and Connie Francis to Cyndi Lauper and The Pretenders. There are strong performances in the supporting roles, especially from Victoria Moseley as a miserable mafia wife and Jonah Russell as Lila’s abusive first husband. Toby Wharton is all too believable as Nino Sarratore, the mansplaining, politically amorphous intellectual who seduces both Lila and Elena, scattering children like sweat.

But overall the effect is of a five-hour, chaotic mess. It doesn’t help that there are too few actors playing too many parts – my companion, who had not read the books, was hopelessly confused as to who was supposed to be on stage at any one point. Alfonso is played by separate actors in separate acts; meanwhile Martin Hyder reappears within a few minutes as Nino’s slimy father Donato, his wealthy friend Bruno and Lila’s eventual partner Enzo. If you haven’t read the books, you’ll be hard pressed to know which of those three characters Cusack’s Elena eventually goes to bed with.

The self-consciously literary quality doesn’t suffer as much as one might expect. The lifelong influence of Lila’s childhood short story, The Blue Fairy, is deeply felt – not least in the blue palette that pervades both women’s costumes. We are still left uncertain about whether Elena has stolen Lila’s life-story, or vice versa. But for a story so concerned with social mobility and language, little thought seems to have gone into anyone’s accents (we get stock regional accents indicating stupidity and that’s about it.) As in the novel, we rely on Elena to report when anyone is speaking in a local dialect, and when we’re hearing high Italian. Perhaps it is de Angelis’ final attempt to replicate the cold distance of Elena’s childhood memories, the alienating effect of a social escapee’s act of remembrance. But like much of this laudably ambitious adaptation, it is fundamentally unsuccessful.

My Brilliant Friend Parts 1 and 2 runs at the Rose Theatre, Kingston, until 2nd April. Box Office: 020 8174 0090