How many adaptations per decade do Elena Ferrante’s The Neapolitan Novels really need? The half-century-spanning, four-book exegesis of a friendship between two women named Lenù and Lila is already on every best-of-the-decade book list. Last year HBO broadcast a handsome Italian-language miniseries made from My Brilliant Friend, the first book in the set; a second season, adapting the second book, is forthcoming. And in London, the two-part play My Brilliant Friend, adapted by April De Angelis and directed by Melly Still, has just opened at the National Theatre. (Despite the title, it incorporates all four novels, each compressed into one act.) At this point, anyone but the most die-hard Ferrante fan could be forgiven for finding this a bit much. Even Harry Potter waited longer to make his two-part stage debut.
But the National Theatre’s My Brilliant Friend is no cash-in, no mere companion piece to the books: Still’s production is its own animal, and a wild one. For all its fidelity to the source, the play is at home in itself as a work of theater, fully plugged into a high-voltage current of make-believe. It’s playful.
At the opening of Part One, Niamh Cusack takes the stage as the late-middle-aged Lenù Greco in the present day, and almost immediately the play flashes back, just as the novel does, to Lenù’s early childhood in postwar working-class Naples. You wait expectantly for the stage to flood with children, for Cusack to be replaced with a child actress, joined by the child-Lila — but Cusack remains onstage, joined by a raucous crowd of adults.
Where are the children? It takes you a moment to realize that these are the children. Each character is played by the same actor the whole way through, from early childhood all the way to late adulthood.
Because of that, the suspension of disbelief required is higher than professional theater typically demands, and for the first minute or so you must overcome a certain resistance to the weirdness of middle-aged women playing with dolls. But then, very quickly, you cease to notice it at all. As if by magic, the bare-bones set becomes postwar Naples, and the English-speaking, British-accented adults become Italian children who grow up before our eyes.
As Lenù, Cusack is marvelous. She never wholly sheds a girlish timidity as she ages from a poverty-stricken child to a wealthy novelist. If she employs any acting tricks to convey her character’s age, you don’t consciously register them; she simply is a precocious schoolgirl, or a lovelorn teen, or a divorced mother of three.
Lenù’s lifelong crush and eventual lover, Nino Sarratore, is played by Ben Turner, an actor about two decades Cusack’s junior, yet it’s always Cusack who comes as off the younger one, in thrall to the dreamy upperclassman. And when Lenù is molested by Nino’s creepy father (Al Nedjari) on her 15th birthday, you wince as if watching an actual teenager get groped by an older man.
Catherine McCormack is Lila, and her blistering, feral performance alone would justify the casting of adults. If Cusack plays Lenù as a child who never quite settles comfortably into adulthood, McCormack takes the opposite tack with Lila, an ambitious old soul for whom childhood is a humiliating hindrance. When she curses out her cruel father or holds a knife to a street harasser’s throat, she means it, and McCormack rejects cuteness in a way that no child actress could. Her voice is husky, her eyes hooded and hard. She carries herself with unnerving stillness, whether as a barefoot street urchin or an exhausted factory worker. If The Neapolitan Novels have a central subject, it’s the injustice of Lenù moving up in the world while her brilliant but unlucky friend is trapped in poverty, and McCormack embodies this injustice in her stage presence. Don’t you dare forget about me, her fierce eyes always seem to be saying — and you wouldn’t dare.
The casting in My Brilliant Friend is essentially age blind, impressionistically suggesting the characters’ souls rather than realistically representing their bodies, and the effect is so disarming I can’t believe how rarely it’s attempted in professional theater. It feels exactly right that the gentle Enzo (Trevor Fox), the learning-challenged son of a fruit seller, is perpetually gray-haired, while Nino is eternally young and hot. By far the biggest audience laugh comes in response to the line “You’re 45 years old!” — delivered to a character whose age, suffice it to say, was not apparent until then. When Lenù gives birth for the first time, the infant is played by a full-grown man, squalling and flailing and sucking at her breast. Oh, yes, I thought: that is the size of the psychic space taken up by a new baby. In its nutty way, it’s the most accurate stage portrayal of a baby I’ve ever seen, and it’s ruined me for any baby played by the usual inanimate bundle of blankets. The play may even have ruined me for traditional age-matched casting, which now strikes me as a boringly literal waste of opportunity; My Brilliant Friend makes the possibilities feel endless.
The cast’s ageless consistency counterbalances the story’s historical sweep, efficiently suggested by ever-changing costumes (designed, along with the set, by Soutra Gilmour) and music cues. “Eight Days a Week” gives way to “Purple Haze,” Nino reappears in Lenù’s adult life ominously accompanied by the opening chords of “You’re So Vain,” and a violent wedding scene contains the wittiest use of “We Are Family” you’ll ever see. But even as the world evolves around them, the characters, like the actors who play them, remain the same. Lenù will always be an anxious try-hard, endlessly willing to debase herself for a gold star; Lila is forever a glinting switchblade of a person, cutting and wounding Lenù even when she herself is broken by life.
Times change, My Brilliant Friend suggests, but people never really do. Or perhaps it’s the reverse: We all stay stubbornly ourselves, yet history keeps zooming on. The two plays add up to five action-packed hours, and still I was stunned when the final curtain fell on Part Two. How could it be over already — weren’t they all just children a moment ago? Where did the time go?
My Brilliant Friend is at the National Theatre in London.