Taking place over two sittings, each more than two and a half hours long, My Brilliant Friend is epic in length, if little else.
The National Theatre’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (now a hit HBO series) runs the full gamut of human emotion, spanning decades and shifting seismically in both tone and subject matter – all without getting out of third gear.
It follows childhood friends Lenù and Lila, precocious girls dragged up in the slums of 1950s Naples. Unusually bright, they shine against the backdrop of petty gangsters and constrictive gender roles, and both seem destined to transcend their humble origins. But these two strands of the same double helix spiral in opposite directions, each one believing the other to be the eponymous “brilliant friend” even as their lives grow ever-farther apart.
With so many hours to play with, the production takes its sweet time getting started, especially during a glacial first half, which sees the girls age from naive pre-schoolers to pubescent love-rivals. The friends are played throughout by Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack, aged 60 and 47 respectively, both of whom are excellent, seamlessly morphing from young girls into elderly women.
It’s a funny old play, part character study about two women attempting to reconcile domestic and societal abuse; part Godfather-esque tale of corruption and crime; part campy, Italian West Side Story complete with song-and-dance numbers; part wide-angle look at the changing fortunes of Italy throughout the latter half of the 20th century.
Combine this with liberal use of projection, some nifty puppetry and the Olivier’s rotating stage and you have a play that’s incredibly broad in its scope yet somehow limited in its ambitions. After five hours with these characters, I knew the minutiae of their lives but felt largely unmoved by their plight.
Most people attending the show will already be au fait with either the novels or the TV series, and this will serve as a nostalgic reminder of a cultural path already well trodden. But as a work in its own right, My Brilliant Friend falls a little flat.