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FringeReview UK 2019

Low Down

Directed by Melly Still, with set and design by Soutra Gilmour with music composed by Jim Fortune, Lighting by Michael Rippeth and Sound Design by Jon Nichols. Sarah Dowling’s movement director with Video Design by Tal Yarden and Fight Director John Sandeman. Puppetry Design and Direction’s by Toby Olié.


In a story where women fear they’re dissolving, when one calls another ‘my brilliant friend’ it’s no surprise you’re meant to think it’s the other way round: as does the friend.

So it’s novelist Lenù Greco who thinks Lila Cerulo’s the brilliant one – the real writer with no chance. How that feeling of imposter syndrome works out through Elena Ferrante’s four Neopolitan novels is epically condensed by April de Angelis into two plays, lasting over five hours together. Transferring from a run last year at The Rose Theatre Kingston, the Olivier stage amplifies epic: this drama you feel has found its home.

It’s a magisterial adaptation too, unhurried though fluid. It’s also fair to say the plays being adaptations aren’t free-standing. You have to see both. Chances are you’ll feel compelled to. It’s another adaptation of epochal reach and reader’s familiarity – so often a crowd-pleaser. Like Small Island earlier this year My Brilliant Friend taps into both.

Unlike it, there’s no easy closure to narratives long on interiority, shorter on defining moments. Two women again dominate, but here almost completely with the men walking cartoons or suits – both notions stood on their heads in Melly Still’s quietly mesmerising production: the biggest cartoon’s a sassy self-erasure; and empty dresses suffer falls from windows, and rape.

Women here fight to define themselves against every dissolve: Italian patriarchy above all, childbirth, body-shape, age, being pushed to the side of their own lives. Ferrante’s leitmotif faithfully transfers: both verbally and the way those dresses suffer. And later, puppets.

It’s 2010. Lila’s disappeared. Ferrante’s tetralogy only completed in 2015 is one of the most acclaimed – and popular -fictions this century, following the friendship of two women born 1944 from the fifties through six decades to this moment in 2010, when storytelling takes over from story.

Dido’s Lament opens Part One to some purpose. After Lenù mysteriously receives two dolls from her childhood, last seen thrown down a grille, we’re flipped back to that moment shared with Lila who instigated it. The Lament we learn references Lila’s having read the entire Aeneid in Latin by fourteen – her Latin and Greek are always ahead of Lenù; Lina has to coach her.

Niamh Cusack’s Lenù is on stage almost throughout, Catherine McCormack’s Lina not often away. They both compel alone or in contrast, and nearly all that sizzles comes from their chemistry. Cusack’s hunched conformist dares follow wild, suicidally life-enhancing Lina in throwing her doll down a shaft and into that underworld Dido drops into (several bodies follow), though here to challenge menacingly cocky Do Achille Caracci – first of Al Nedjari’s two roles – from the local Comarra family into returning them. Soon he’s dead, and a sinister matriarch takes over.

It’s an act that defines them and the way Cusack flinches hesitation or McCormack morphs through savagely pretty to hunched factory-worker through to sharp-suited computer programmer, shows how in a sense she keeps her shape, by shifting it. Lenù conserves, though not always. Lila tears up; but not always.

Both can write, and part of the Part One is Lenù discovering Lila’s not the only talented one, but feeling she’s ventriloquising. That’s because Lenù’s family grudgingly allow her to continue to secondary school, and eventually the Free University of Pisa. But Lila’s shoe-making family stop her from doing the same. Soon their professor Galiani (Bradria Timimi) warns Lenù against consorting with plebs. Yet she’d marked Lila’s story as brilliant.

Despite the patriarchy, Part One is dominated by women. Mary Jo Randle as Lenù’s jealous vindictive mother and Victoria Moseley as gangster Manuela Solara shine in another couple of roles where the women shape and define the neighbourhood and family, however malign.

It’s not a simple academic divergence of two children. McCormack embodies a simmering risk-taking intensity that attracts all men including fateful Nino Sarratore – Ben Turner’s soft braggadocio swaggers throughout his hair-lengths. Whilst Lina conquers him, Lenù allows Donato his lothario poet father (Nedjari again) to take her virginity on the condition of one night only. And Nadia the Professor’s daughter (Emily Wachter) enamoured of Nino goes off to join the Red Army out of sheer pique.

De Angelis ups the tempo from fifteen up. Lina’s articulacy attracts parental fury as she crafts a unique shoe design. Lina’s trapped into marriage by Jonah Russell’s hapless Stefano (son of Don Achille, brother of cross-dressing Alfonso) who betrays her design to the foot-tapping Soalara. When she proves unwilling, Stefano rapes her – the dress here graphically mute.

After a fantasy sequences where both young women wreak vengeance, tearing malefactors limb from limb – a beautifully savaged piece of theatricality – Lina actually leaves Stefano.

There’s also the Camorra emerging after Don Achille’s death to introduce what becomes the major theme of Part Two, uniting the women in struggle. The Solara brothers are different: sexually troubled Michele – ranging but worried Adam Burton – and his fatal attraction to Colin Ryan’s Alfonso Caracci whom Lila much later encourages in cross-dressing and coming out: a powerful moment where male identity’s revealed through female agency. And Ira Mandela Siobhan’s Marcello Solara, a more dangerous sashay into violence, twisting the Mac into knife.

Both women amongst others fall for Nino. This tangles and punctuates reunions over the years, till finally Lila has him followed for Lenù’s benefit. ‘You can only be liberated if I’m free’ Turner’s Nino tells Lenù to shivers of delighted audience outrage. His portrayal echoes the hapless incontinence of James McArdle’s Plotonov.

The whole of Part Two’s powered by how Lila though eighteen with a child finds her way out through hand-shearing factory work, activism with clueless students and later life (video graphics adorn much of Part Two, first footage then primitive FTSE). We learn about (southern) Italian postwar aspirations through earthquake – a vivid shudder, not quite signposted – and the Red Army, on whose fringes Lila strays, bringing newly-published Lenù with her. ‘Until we write our own texts,’ Lenù asserts, ‘we won’t know who we are.’ It’s not yet clear if she knows herself.

De Angelis counterpoints the double storyline: Ferrante excoriates Lenù’s fashionable shifting to find a real voice, and Cusack grates a sort of itchiness and discomfiture at her writing creations, again as if she’s hoodwinked the world. After Lenù’s initial success, her explicit, autobiographical novel championed by clever Nino against a sexist fool, she stalls.

It’s only partly her marriage to Casaubon-lite Pietro, a bumbling sexually comical professor – Avoth again – and children (Burton and Timimi riotously funny mewling and puking). Lenù’s second, now anti-Solara novel is most of all trashed by publisher and Lina in manuscript and shoved away. Only after a feminist book and stalled by a deadline does that book get revived and all fame and fury breaks loose, not least another novel.

The outfall’s vertiginous, finally appalling, after both women give birth to late children in 1981; there’s consequences to photo-shoots, who’s in a picture, who’s not.

There’s some sharply-defined work from Ameira Darwish as Melia Cappuccio, schoolmate, enforcer and perhaps avenger Enzo (Trevor Fox), Danielle Henry as Nella Incardo the Ischia hostess who encourages sex, Martin Hyder particularly as vacillating Publisher, Kezrena James as Nino’s luckless wife Elenaora, David Judge etching Lila’s overshadowed decent shoemaker brother Rino, Wela Mbusi’s oleaginous art interviewer, Emily Mytton’s fatefully wheedling photographer, Justin Avoth‘s decent car mechanic Antonio Cappuccio jilted by Lenù, his wronged sister Ada Elizabeth Mary (EM) Williams, an ultimately vicious Factory Foreman in John Sandeman, and Toby Wharton as heir to that meat factory Lina leads a strike in.

Set and design’s by Soutra Gilmour on the Olivier stage revolve where scaffolded stairwells with gantries swirl about the stage. At one point they’re covered and people burst through. With few other props it’s the lighting by Michael Rippeth that stretches glooms and deeps or bright lights, and in the latter stages video design by Tal Yarden showing footage, a fireworks display, early computer-era trading and exposing gangsterism – the writing’s unnecessarily in Italian, a pity since some details we’re not told might have flickered tantalisingly.

Music’s composed by Jim Fortune with slanting Neopolitan sixths in street songs (sung by Anne-Mare Piazza with a pre-recorded quintet) giving way British hits and – deliciously – an Italian Rock Around the Clock. Sound Design’s by Jon Nichols covering everything from mood buzz to gunshots. Sarah Dowling’s movement director ensures a fluid pacey sweep to the storyboarding. Fight Director John Sandeman works out mass brawls as well as expected fights. Puppetry Design and Direction’s by Toby Olié, involving those two children born late to the protagonists.

De Angelis and the ensemble ensures there’s not a moment to relax. The panicky climax and resolve we see coming without knowing the originals, though the denouement’s touching and again flips questions of just who finds whose voice. Having skewered Lenù earlier as derivative, it’s clear that her true voice comes from accidental faith in an earlier one whom Lila too had trashed, with a return to Naples and the labyrinth of permission which includes silence to hear it. Including that revenant Lament. A writer wrongly manqué, Lila becomes the editor from hell Lenù needs most and least.

It’s engrossing, full of fine touches and small coups. My Brilliant Friend couldn’t be the ideally-shaped adaptation some novels become: it straddles epic and picaresque. But it’s wonderfully studded with theatricality, never flags and leaves you wondering at the art of Cusack and McCormack who give the performances of their lives.