The outstanding production of My Brilliant Friend at the Rose Theatre is a marathon achievement for everyone involved, audience included.
It is five hours long; it is possible to see the two halves on different nights, but it was worth the numb behind to experience the gigantic story unfolding in its entirety, playing out half a century in the life of a Naples slum gripped by a ferment of change.
The story tells of the emotional struggle of two unusual, intelligent women to stay friends, when so many factors – poverty, family, politics, and their love for the same man – seem bent on pitting them against one other.
It is an act of extreme daring, to adapt four novels so acclaimed that their mysterious author Elena Ferrante has been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Conveying all the huge array of characters was impossible with a small ensemble cast, and many scenes well loved by the books’ devoted fans had to be cut.
The act of compression showed in some places, as plot lines just broke off and complex events were portrayed by mime sequences.
And yet, taken as a whole, the production works amazingly well. By the end I was confounded, and felt battered by emotion. I was filled with admiration for Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack’s for their passionate portrayals of the very different lead characters. I had become caught up in the lives of Lenu and Lila.
McCormack’s Lila is an over-confident street urchin with a hoarse, cawing voice and exaggerated nonchalance, hiding the volcanic emotion and razor judgement inside. Cusack’s Lenu is more mellifluous, a people-pleaser who often defers to or copies her feistier friend, yet grows ruthless as she develops her own sense of identity.
At a Q&A session with the cast, the actors spoke of the marathon of staging both plays consecutively, the athletic feats needed to switch character within seconds, and the exhaustion they felt by the end; but also the satisfaction of bringing the whole to the stage in one go.
Rehearsals were a dynamic process of distilling the books’ essentials, they said, with key scenes being cut and others added until late on, to try to keep the narrative balanced.
For days after, the play’s dilemmas continued to occupy my thoughts. Why did Lenu defy Lila? Who was really the stronger of the two? Where is Lila?
It is an accolade to all involved that this gigantic, tragic story made it to the stage with such triumphant success.
My Brilliant Friend runs at the Rose Theatre in Kingston until April 2. Book now.