“As usual, she was taking on the job of sticking a pin in my heart not to stop it but to make it beat harder.” – Elena Ferrante, The Story of the Lost Child, p. 94.
The Neapolitan Novels by Elena Ferrante are widely considered classics of contemporary literature. They chart a friendship between two women and span decades from the 1950s to 2010. Their relationship – intertwined with Italian politics of the post-war period – is complicated, brutal, manipulative, and yet they are somehow inseparable. There’s nothing like it, certainly nothing nearly as ambitious in the contemporary literary world. Ferrante is notorious for her anonymity – possibly destroyed by a NYRB investigation that I refuse to read – presumably because the novels are highly autobiographical and she (I’m using she because I see no reason to believe otherwise) wants to protect the community it is based on.
It was inevitable then, that there would be those lining up to adapt it for other media, I believe there’s an Italian television series in the works. Here, the task of adapting the 1700ish pages for the stage falls to April De Angelis, under the direction of Melly Still. A two-performance, five hour epic with a cast of twelve, the story becomes plot driven. In the books, it often feels as if nothing is happening in a rather Chekhovian way, but the effect of contraction is that the play unfurls in a series of short, sharp scenes, far more in the vein of Shakespeare and shot through with sex and violence.
We open on Elena, our 60-something-year-old narrator, as she discovers her childhood friend, Lila, has disappeared. We move backwards in time to their first encounter, and work back to the start, with a few jumps forwards, illustrating how certain words and incidents send their echoes through Elena’s life. Elena ultimately becomes a writer, while Lila stays in Naples, in a series of unhappy jobs, unable to afford continued schooling. The thought that haunts Elena is that Lila may well be better than her, held back only by lack of opportunity. In the books (I would say I’ll stop comparing soon, but I don’t want to,) the plot accumulates like dust in the corners of a room; nothing there until someone disturbs it. This means that it isn’t until the end of the third book that you can get perspective as to the scope of the thing, and where it is going. In this adaptation, we are sent hurtling through story after story, incident after incident, scene after scene, so that the culmination seems inevitable. It’s not less good, just a very different sensation.
There are always sacrifices and trade-offs made in adaptation; gone are most of the intricacies of Elena’s neighbourhood, all the back-stabbing and dealing. The lives of Elena’s classmates are largely cut. Gone too, is Ferrante’s gorgeous examination of female physicality, and Elena’s terror at becoming her mother physically (Kate Maltby write about this beautifully.) Angelis cuts away everything superfluous to the central pair, and Soutra Gilmlour’s evocative set focuses out attention further on the scale of the humans at the centre of this sprawling tale. Elena and Lila are absolutely the centre of the story, placing huge demands on the actresses. Niamh Cusack’s Elena barely leaves the stage, constant in her blue smock as Catherine McCormack’s Lila shifts from costume to costume.
The title of the play is an interesting one, mainly because all three of the words are up for grabs. ‘My,’ the story is told from Elena’s perspective, so does this make Lila the central figure, Elena’s possession? The ‘Brilliant’ certainly seems to be at least partly ironic, the Italian translates more specifically to ‘ingenious,’ which is probably more accurate. And as for ‘Friend’… There are certainly times that Elena and Lila could not be further from friendship and confidence. Moreover, there is a distance that haunts them their entire lives; Lila may well be the person to whom Elena is closest, but she remains still completely unknowable.
Speaking of Lila, Catherine McCormack is fantastic. Totally different from what I had imagined, and yet within ten seconds I bought it. Lila moves between glee and rage in seconds, from a very young age. McCormack embodies this entirely, and it riveting to watch. There is a moment at the end of the first act, where Lila and Elena rip the eyes from the Solara brothers in a moment of fantasy, Lila’s wedding dress becoming bloody, and they run away up a towering staircase, only to return as reality resumes, and Lila ends the marriage almost immediately after its begun. McCormack plays the fantasised violence with relish, and then delivers the reality with a chilling clarity. You’re left in no doubt as to why Elena is enthralled by her.
Elena and Lila are not the same, nor are they polar opposite. Ferrante has made it clear that she structured the novels to never permit the pair to be considered so. Rather, they seem to be different instruments playing the same score, with Elena always a couple of bars behind. She’s terrified of being left behind; when she is the first to get her period, she revels in it. She is also horrified when she realises in the final act just how far ahead Lila has always been. Their relationship is fundamentally built on a twisted form of competition. It feels a daring way to portray woman on stage, scheming, manipulating and competing – and behaving like this without apology.
It also feels like the politics has been turned up in the mix. I don’t mean there’s more, I just mean that it’s more concentrated, Lila addressing the crowds protesting outside the sausage factory feels particularly potent. The feminism is also more explicit, Elena’s husband feels all the more disgusting in the flesh; when Elena asks for him to look after the children for some time so she can return to writing, he says no, as her liberation should not come at the expense of his freedom. “For fuck’s sake,” is her only response. This piece really draws attention to the hypocrisy of a particularly male liberalism. A desire for equality, as long as nothing changes. As Lila says, there can never be an equilibrium, as those on the top aren’t willing to move down, and those on the bottom will never be satisfied enough to stop climbing.
The books have certainly struck a chord with women, and Ferrante has expressed her happiness that her readers are first and foremost women, especially among older women. It certainly seemed that way in the auditorium; I’m not unused to being the youngest in an audience, but this was an extreme example. It reminded me of the time I saw 9 to 5: The Musical on a Saturday matinee at the Liverpool Empire. Jeesh.
As I looked around the Rose however, it was interesting to see how few men were watching on this particular Saturday. The audience was overwhelmingly female, probably 10 men in the stalls in total. There is an audience for genuinely complicated women on stage – and I mean genuinely ‘The Honourable Woman’ sort of complicated, not superficially complicated. But more of them need to be written, and more people – including men – need to see them.