Review - My Brilliant Friend at the National Theatre
While binge television watching has not only been facilitated by the rise of Netflix but actively encouraged by them - the entirety of the third series of The Crown was released on the same day - theatre has been playing catch-up with its own version: asking theatregoers to commit to spending extended stretches in the theatre watching the same story evolve.
But whereas Harry Potter and the Cursed Child creates a brand-new story, told in two parts, that extends a franchise that is already familiar to readers, and The Inheritance (newly transferred to Broadway) explicitly riffs on the literary source of EM Forster's Howard's End to create a new story of contemporary gay Manhattanites wrestling with the legacy of AIDS, My Brilliant Friend is altogether more conventional in seeking to adapt a best-selling four-part series, known collectively as the Neapolitan novels, into an expansive theatrical event. The books have sold over 10 million copies in 40 countries, so there's obviously a keen appetite for them (and presumably a willing audience ready to consume their stories again in a different form).
This theatrical version by April de Angelis has been named after the first book in the quartet of novels by the pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante, but in fact spans the narrative sweep of all four of them. Packed into just over five hours of stage time, it is in danger of seeming to have more width than depth: at times it is just a succession of endless events in the lives of the two women - Elena (known as Lenu) and Lila, who we first meet as childhood friends and watch over their lifetimes of romantic hardships and political battles. It's an alternately fierce and tender portrait of female friendship, betrayal and solidarity.
Director Melly Still immediately sets her stall that this will be a stripped-back version of words and imagination, rather than naturalistic style, as we are confronted by a bare vista on the vast acreage of the Olivier stage, on which only sits a lonely desk. Designer Soutra Gilmour will add a succession of interlocking, reformatting staircases to conjure different locations, but this is essentially one of the ugliest sets seen on the Olivier stage in a long time. Projections by Tal Yarden occasionally provide some compensating colour, while pop songs of the period offer a complementary, if over-used, soundtrack to the changing times.
Instead, we are forced to concentrate on the pile-up of incident and characterisation. There's an awful lot of both, and the action sometimes feels as hurried as the characters seem regularly harried.
Yet there's also a touching sensitivity to how Niamh Cusack both recalls and narrates their story, as a writer who finds material in her own life story. Catherine McCormack, as the more personally elusive of the two, also brings grace and sensitivity to the stage. There are some broader characterisations amongst the large, multi-tasking supporting cast.
There's already an HBO series based on the first book, with a second season to follow based on the second; though it pains me to say it, I suspect television will be a more successful medium to contain such a sprawling narrative.