My Brilliant Friend Parts 1 and 2
Rose Theatre Kingston, 27th February and 17th March 2017
I had not read the quartet of Elena Ferrante novels coming in to this (though I mean to put this right now). However, as this is a Guardian readers’ and various novelists’ favourite and with the SO having partially read them and given them a qualified thumbs up (she sets the bar pretty high), and with it being the Rose so on the doorstep, we were destined to go. And so we did.
First decision was to split the two parts. For choice I normally wouldn’t do that preferring to take the pain of setting through multi part theatre on the chin (or more exactly bum) and doing it all in a day where possible. This was a reminder of why that remains the preferred strategy. What you get out of a theatre performance depends in part on what you put in so different days mean different moods and so different levels of enjoyment in my experience. And with these plays, with multiple characters (and doubling/trebling of parts), an awful lot of sharp, staccato scenes to get through in the 5 or so hours (to do justice to the novels I gather) and multiple themes to explore (where I think the adaption was clearly a winner), one sitting would definitely have worked better for me.
A particular attraction for me was the director Melly Still. I really, really liked her Cymbeline for the RSC. A tricky play but she was unafraid to chuck ideas in (gender changes for characters, topical issues of national identity, nature vs nurture and so on) which definitely made sense to me in a play where it is very easy to get lost. So a plus there. I had not seen Catherine McCormack (Lila) or, to my eternal shame, Niamh Cusack (Elena/Lenu) on stage before, but felt there were perfectly cast. In Part 1 Catherine McCormack was outstanding capturing the strength and unpredictability of Lila (don’t shout at me I am just using a word to describe a whole gamut of traits) with her movement as well as her speech. In Part 2 Niamh Cusack took centre stage (and left. right up and down – there was a lot of movement in the production) as her character developed with a determination and a different, egotistical strength.
So I think two cracking complementary performances, a lot of smart stagecraft, the use of set, sound and lighting in a way that the Rose rarely sees, an obviously brilliant story/stories, and breathtaking pace and energy. In fact the pace and energy may just be a little too breathtaking. I gather there is a lot to pack in and this is what the adaption does. This is then multiplied by the character, place and time shifts. So it is all a bit of a whirlwind. No other way to do it and meet the needs of the faithful I suspect but even so there were times when I wanted a bit of air in proceedings (when this did happen, largely in the Lila/Lenu exchanges, I got more meaning I think).
As I said I haven’t read the books which I am guessing is an advantage in seeing this, so no risk of what is in the head clashing with what is on the stage. But overall whilst I thoroughly enjoyed what I was seeing and hearing, and how I was seeing and hearing it, there may just have been a bit too much to take in (compounded I think by my gender – there is a lot of experience for a privileged, white male to take in here given that all the men are – rightly – portrayed as utter c**ks).
I see some reviews of this that are whinging about scenes lost or themes in the novels which don’t come out on stage. Whilst I suspect that the pace of the production did mean some “thinning out” I would, with all due respect, say to these punters that there is a book, and now there is a play (and I believe there will be a TV adaptation). It’s theatre. it’s different, that is the whole point. Let the book take care of interior monologue, invocation of time and place and the clash of ideas. Let the play focus on the character and the drama in a shared experience. Don’t go if you are just going to moan about what isn’t there. Judge what is there. Right rant over. Sorry.
Oh and finally I would come down on the side of those who think there is only really one character here – that make most sense to me. It’s a memory play which to me explores the power of words to shape the past and the experience of women in a grimly patriarchal society (amongst loads of other things). So I only really saw one character through multiple possible experiences.
P.S. I just saw a “review” in Mail Online – yet another reason why I detest everything about that shabby organisation.