“How poorly made we are…how insufficient“ states the compelling Lila. It’s a reference to the struggling women at the center of this epic exploration based on Elana Ferrante’s magnificent ‘Neapolitan Novels’ (I’m told it’s magnificent, by my friends and the ladies who are sitting next to me – they and my friends are over the moon with excitement that I’m seeing this – I don’t know a thing about any of it – but still excited). That framework, beautifully conveyed is the seed that climbs upward on robust rolling platforms of stairs and balconies for the National Theatre’s epic two part staging of this rugged, raw, and resilient story. Adapted by April De Angelis (Royal Exchange’s Frankenstein), the two central women foster a sister-like engagement that is filled with, as it is with most siblings; revenge, hate, envy, anger, and naturally, undeniable love and need. The two are bonded almost heartlessly through the brain, rather than the hip.
Lila Cerullo, boldly portrayed with dimension by Catherine McCormack (West End/Broadway’s The Ferryman), desires that their bodies and mind; hers and her childhood friend, the more gentle Lenù Greco, dynamically played with delicately by Niamh Cusack (National’s Curious Incident…), be robust, and able to stand against the oppression and inequality of their status. Lila is all fire, and Lenù sees the world through clearer eyes, in a way. She knows how to manage herself, but lacks the passionate burning that lives and eats up Lila. Together, against all odds, they desire to invent a resistance and reinforce stronger boundaries that ultimately will shape both their lives. The question that is threaded through the four act decades-long piece with a concentrated passion is “what does it take for a woman, in particular, to bolster her margins?” It’s huge in dimension; this idea and quandary, much like this gigantic undertaking of a production and adaptation, not to mention the large formidable cast made up of roster of professionals taking on somewhat character parts throughout. And it works, somewhat. My Brilliant Friend captivates, even as it expands over six hours of of speedy story telling, although it somehow also gets lost a bit in the minutia of all the tense and intricate details of this immensely complicated bundle of novels. It forgets to find the single non-convoluted thread that could lead us through their history from 1952 to 2011, and not get lost in the sharp quick structural set-ups that readers of the actual text cling to as relevant and required.
Overall, My Brilliant Friend feels fragmented and sharply staccato in form and flow, even when fulfilling the promise of the novels. The opening is the most deliberate, steady, and solidly orchestrated, thanks to the directorial eye and vision of Melly Still (Birmingham Rep’s The Lovely Bones). Lenù walks in proud and strong, taking center stage on a great expanse of space. She turns her laptop on, and gorgeous operatic music fills the void, sweeping us in as she unwraps, what turns out to be, a powerful memory of connection and betrayal. It sends her swirling back to the time and attachment of ‘Tina’ and ‘Lou’ who just wanted to say hello. But much like the bond that forms between these two young women in those first few detailed moments, one is thrown into oblivion, and the other follows, but in her own unique manner for complicated reasons. It’s a journey back to their beginning, to the turmoil of Naples and the later escape to Florence, all in the hope to understand what it meant to these two women growing up in the impoverished Mediterranean culture of post Second World War. And how one can survive this misogynistic oppression.
The dynamic stairs float in giving form and depth to the empty stage, thanks to the compelling structural design by costume and set designer Soutra Gilmour (Broadway’s Betrayal), with compelling lighting by Malcolm Rippeth (West End’s Calendar Girls), sound design by Jon Nicholls (Duke of York’s Touching the Void), and strong video design by Tal Yarden (National/Broadway’s Network). The world of Naples swirls and restructures with intimidation and determination. They dissolve, loosen and come apart, telling a strongly constructed tale of family and power through violence and force. They move and return, being absorbed or disappearing into something else, just like the struggling women of this particular part of Italy. Women, at that time, can not be both maternal and carnal, forever combating against culture as society attempts to usher them towards marriage and motherhood, without many other agreeable options. It’s a neutering quality, stripping the average woman of anything beyond what social status demands. And these two women are not going to take this on without a fight, within themselves, between each other, and the world at large.
The two young scholarly women at the core want to break past these boundaries, smashing down the distinctions that attempt to force them into a misogynistic subservience. Melina, dutifully portrayed by Amiera Darwish (Lyceum’s The Iliad) eats soap in her pathetic response, driven mad by unrequited love and a world that is pushing her down into an isolated invisibility. Punished by the crowd for being seduced and then abandoned by a man, she has been made formless, transitioning with heartless violence from widow ‘crone’ to ‘whore’ as if there is no other choice. Lila, trying her best to avoid the stereotypical outcome that stands before her, floating as if ethereal in a simple peasant gown, is thrown from a window by her father simply because she wants to continue her education at middle school. The violence of fathers and thugs is startling in its intensity, courtesy of fight director John Sandeman and movement director Sarah Dowling (RSC’s Julius Caesar). From that moment on, the two women forge divergent paths. They attempt to hold on to a string of connection, but society, culture, and the history of political upheaval and fascism find a way to continually punish the headstrong and intelligent Lila for failing to demonstrate the required female passivity. Something Lenù manages to navigate. Love and passion, though, is a different battle, with different outcomes and rules.
Draped in the effectual music of composer Jim Fortune (National’s Pericles), the epic and multi-layered Friend plucked determinedly from the beloved novels, play on with speed and focus, feeling at times forced forward because of an authoritarian desire to include all and everything, when a stripped down approach to theme and story, with the assistance of a headstrong dramaturg, like Lenù, might serve the audience better. It’s a lot to take in, but the women beside me, overjoyed to be seeing this story turned into a production at The National, state midway through that the essence has remained intact. They wonder if I can follow the story, and I tell them I am able, so far, to stay connected. The two women center stage are holding me tight, and keeping me intrigued. The piece flows in like ocean waves, particularly at the beginning of Act two, shattering and slicing an image of puppet violence, directed by puppetry designer Toby Olié (National’s Pinocchio) into a destructive heat wave of jealousy and anger. It remains true and determined, even in its fragmented slicing, and I stay, leaning in, and emotionally connected.
“Nino kissed me so hard, my lips hurt“, a feeling that in someway is what My Brilliant Friend does to my own senses and heart. All these years, all these shadows and silhouettes against the flames of humanity, they try with all their might to enter my soul, attempting to make me feel the emotional power that the books evoked in my overly excited neighbors. My heart cracks apart in moments, but overall, the adaptation starts to feel like power point presentations of themes and metaphors, rather than that core torturous emotion that was brought forth in that first well paced scene. I wanted to feel their pain wash over me as deeply and beautifully as this adaptation has been crafted and designed. My Brilliant Friend is indeed gorgeous and finely created, but overall it jumps from plot point and historical symbolism with such frantic determination that the play, in the end, snaps free of me. I am left knowledgable about the time, place, and these two headstrong women, but, much like the lost ‘Tina’ thrown down into the scary cellar, I lay there, abandoned, desperate to untangle the strings that bind these people to one another.
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