BWW Review: MY BRILLIANT FRIEND PARTS 1 & 2, Rose Theatre
Audacity matters in theatre. To tell a story - any story - with script, acting, set, lighting and all the other elements that comprise this ancient art, is always a challenge and, were it not for those who took on "too much", we would never have seen just how far theatre can go. But not every bold production succeeds - how can they?
Adapter April De Angelis and director Melly Still took on the celebrated Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante and sliced and diced until they had a five hours long show, presented in two parts at the Rose Theatre, Kingston. And it so nearly works. We get the extraordinary lifelong friendship between the brilliant Lila and the brilliant Lenu, with its jealousies, its achievements and its love. We get the dangerous streets of Naples, its political ferment stirred by the memory of war, the invisible hand of the Church and the visible power of the Camorra. And we get the vast cast of characters, good and bad (but mainly bad), who touch the lives of our heroines, as they flee their home city only to be dragged back. If Naples is the most Italian of Italian cities (and I think that, loving every second I've spent there), this is the most Italian of stories.
But there just isn't enough control in the directing nor the script to corral all this electricity, emotion and energy into a coherent whole. Catherine McCormack and Niamh Cusack give bravura performances as Lila and Lenu, the genius of one curdling into a misanthropic rage directed against pretty much everyone, the other's genius driven (or obstructed) by her picking the wrong men over and over again. As Cusack grows in confidence, her head lifts and her voice finds its timbre in life and on the page as her novels hit big, but McCormack is already striding about like a younger Sophia Loren at 16, but old and bitter at 22.
The ensemble play a dizzying array of family members, lovers and enemies many doubling, tripling and quadrupling roles. It makes it a hard job keeping track of who's killing whom and who's shagging whom. Truth be told, it's an impossible ask and, even if I were to have seen Parts 1 and 2 on different evenings, I could not have held all those plotlines in mind. There's a two hour two-hander buried in here that will use a paler pallet, but be more fulfilling for that focus.
But that's not the worst impact of the production's bold ambition. By covering the 66 years time span of the four novels in one theatrical gulp, too many complexities are lost in the need to compress the narrative. The main effect is to turn characters into caricatures, the men in particular falling into those soap opera tropes of sexy bastards, utter shits or insecure confused types who hide it violence. There simply are not enough people to like (or, more accurately, enough about the people to like) to avoid interest flagging, as more or less everyone lets Lila and Lenu down. Sure they had it tough, as women did (and do) but it's gruelling to watch.
Opinions will vary on the Rock'n'Roll Years style signalling of the passing of time via music, as The Beatles fades down and Hendrix fades up. So too the brutality of the language and the gory dream sequence (justified in my book, because blood is a motif that runs through the whole show), but the central problem of adaptation remains unsolved. How can all this be made to make sense?
I'd have considered that question unanswerable had I not seen Toneelgroep's extraordinary Roman Tragedies just 48 hours earlier. I wonder what those Dutch would have done with this group of Italians?