REVIEW: MY BRILLIANT FRIEND (National Theatre) ★★★

The National Theatre‘s latest epic production is the two part adaption of Elena Ferranti‘s Neapolitan Novels which span 1952 to 2011 and follow the friendship of two very clever women Lenu Greco (played by Niamh Cusack) and Lila Cerullo (Catherine McCormack) fighting to find a path through a male dominated Italian landscape .

April De Angelis has taken the four novels and compressed them into two, two and half hour plays and thankfully avoids the obvious devise of having the women speak directly to the audience to reveal their thoughts .

Under the direction of Melly Still, who did such a wonderful job recently staging the book Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the story becomes a rough sketchbook of their interactions with the other Italian families amplified by the projections on the rear of the huge Olivier stage. The other forty plus characters are played by an ensemble of 22 other actors and it is this huge extended family that challenges us to concentrate hard to follow the multiple family rivalries and love stories. In the end we are carried through it by the two marvellous central performances that span their first meeting as young twelve-year-old school girls, through the ups and downs of their relationship into their seventies .

Along the way we see the changing Italian community and the ever present threat of violence from the first murder of Don Achille, the abuse from Lila’s father Fernando (Martin Hyder) and of husband Stepano (Jonah Russell) on Lila, the constant threatening presence of the Solara brothers (Adam Burton and Ira Mandela Siobhan) and frequent bloody head butts. Some of the violence is very effectively staged using just a costume for the victim, at other times it is the violence of extreme eye popping fantasy. Most of the men are all characterised as villains, threatening, abusive and exploitative and Lenu and Lila are battling to survive, thrive and realise their potential with only each other for support. They make a youthful pack to work together, as “I only care what you think ” and because “you are my brilliant friend” but at times it is severely tested.

Lenu has the potential to be a writer and Lila a shoe designer, having been removed from school by her parents as a young teenager but their efforts are initially thwarted by critics and criminals. The strong socialist theme of equalisation of wealth and stopping the greedy elite are never far from the surface and they are challenged as to whether literature advances the cause of social justice although it becomes more in part 2 as a battle between the women and the criminals.

The scenes are set with a combination of stylised back projections and the use of four large concrete staircases which are moved in a choreographed dance by the ensemble. Its simplicity keeps the action flowing but given the capabilities of the Olivier stage, it fails to clearly distinguish the different locations or even the sense of the period. It is left to the wonderful music soundtrack by Jon Nichols and the lighting by Malcolm Rippeth to do the work of setting the place and the time.

The second part the story focuses first on Lenu’s relationship with schoolboy friend Nino (Ben Turner) and her Professor husband Pietro (an excellent performance by Justin Avoth) as she drifts away from Lila and then when she reconnects, their fearless exposure of the Camorra (the Naples Mafia) with its inevitable conclusion. As the women grow stronger and reject the male influence, there is a strong ripple through the audience when Lenu is told by a Nino “your liberation should not signal the loss of my freedom”. There are good cameos too like Mary Jo Randle as Lenu’s mother and their young children are charmingly brought to life by puppeteers.

However too much of the part 2 is told through mimed telephone conversations between the women and then a publisher which are static in contrast with the endless manoeuvring of the four staircases to create levels without creating locations. The effect begins to dull the senses. The earthquake sequence and airplane flight both in slow motion seem like an idea that has not quite worked out as planned and is amusing rather than dramatic.

This is a mammoth undertaking, spanning six decades and six Italian families. Cusack and vibrant evolving McCormack are on stage for virtually the whole time, which is an impressive feat by them both but for all their campaigning for change, championing of emancipation and the criminal exposure, the play makes neither of the women genuinely likeable, alienating family and friends, exposing their children to risk and unable to sustain relationships .

The staging and scale of the task almost overwhelms the central theme and the two women have to fight to hold our attention which for over five hours is a Herculean, or perhaps Amazonian task. For a venue like the Olivier they deserved more support than the minimalist setting for their efforts and the meandering script.

Reviewed by Nick Wayne
Photo: Marc Brenner

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