Few books inspire such breathless fandom as Elena Ferrante’s. Her four "Neapolitan Novels" have proved huge international hits, with over 5.5 million copies sold in over 50 countries. Despite such reach, they still have a cultish status; converts tend to press them on friends and family, to talk about the main characters Lenu and Lila as if we knew them. We get fiercely possessive – and then comes news that the books are being turned into a stage show. Can they really be brought to life, or do such characters belong safely inside our heads?
"Ferrante fever", as this publishing sensation has been dubbed, is most likely to strike among women. Charting the lives of Lenu and Lila from childhood to retirement in post-war Naples, Ferrante offers one of the most in-depth and brutally honest portraits of female friendship ever written. In fact, it makes you realise how rarely such relationships are given sustained, serious attention.
No wonder copies of her books have been passed around my group of female friends like copies of More magazine were at school. WhatsApp messages are sent when one of us encounters a thrilling cliffhanger, prompting early adopters to groan with jealousy of those who have more books to go. We exclaim about the awfulness of the male characters as if they’re Tinder matches who have wronged us personally.
At one point, it was suggested that Ferrante – a pseudonym for an author who wanted to remain anonymous – must be a man: no woman would write such negative portrayals of women. I think this is bullshit, obviously. It is precisely because her portrayal of Lenu and Lila’s relationship is so conflicted that it rings true. Ferrante captures the brutality and devotion of their friendship, the jealousy and fierce pride, the neediness and the need to pull away.
So while the novels run to a hefty 1,600 pages, it’s no wonder that people have been chomping at the bit to adapt them. A monster 32-part TV series is on the cards, prompting somewhat anxious speculation over who might play the leads. But first comes the stage adaptation, turning all four books into a two-part, five-hour epic.
My Brilliant Friend has just opened, not on Broadway or in the West End, but at the unlikely Rose Theatre in the London suburb of Kingston. With Ferrante signing off on the British dramatist April de Angelis’ script, it’s quite the coup. Curious about how the play would sit with other Ferrante followers, I went along to the press night, taking a fellow Ferrante enthusiast with me.
To begin with, the adaptation has notably resisted big-name castings, which is wise, since the last thing a superfan wants is vain celebrities turning these characters into star vehicles for themselves. Think how badly casting Hollywood A-listers in beloved literary roles can go down: Anne Hathaway as Emma in One Day and Keira Knightley as Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice both prompted furious reactions among women before the movies were even released.
Here, Lenu is played by Niamh Cusack and Lila by Catherine McCormack, both theatrical stalwarts but pretty baggage-free for the average audience member. But can they possibly live up to the Lenu and Lila of our imagination? Both are such memorable characters. Chatting to women in the intervals, it seems that every reader identifies with Lenu, who narrates with such a convincing mixture of timidity and tenacity, uncertainty and ambition. Lila, meanwhile, is a scorching firebrand: powerful, intelligent, cruel. Readers love and loathe Lila, just as Lenu does.
Well, they nailed the casting. These two women crackle off each other and, somehow, convincingly age from childhood into their 60s. No, they won’t look exactly like the Lenu and Lila in your head, but the competitiveness and affection, the ability to wound and to support, are there in every sly glance. The charismatic, long-limbed McCormack starts like a feral cat, growing into a more seductive slink as she manipulates men, lovers and mafia bosses alike. It’s an uncompromising, unsentimental portrayal – fearless and fierce. As my pal Jude, watching with me, points out: “Lila really is toxic.” She’s your best friend, and your worst nightmare.
But these are incredibly interior novels. Although Naples makes for an unforgettable setting, great swathes of the story are tunnelling, searingly honest excavations of emotional states. Ferrante flouts – brilliantly – that "show don’t tell" creative writing maxim: there’s a lot of telling, with great psychological acuity, of just how messed up and mixed up her characters are feeling. It’s why you get so involved, so addicted.
Obviously, you lose a lot of that onstage, or it would just be hours and hours of narration. Plenty of subplots and minor characters are chopped, too, no doubt leaving some superfans grumbling over missed-out good bits. But as Lenu, Cusack constantly brims with emotion. My heart breaks with her all over again when her best mate cops off with the man she loves. I cringed as she tried to show off her intellect, felt her outrage when infuriating men fail to support her. And through it all you can see how she wants to be Lila, to be better than Lila; to heal Lila, to hurt Lila. The central, thorny relationship translates.
The show is in two parts, which can be watched on consecutive nights or in one big binge. I went for the full Ferrante-a-thon, and was glad I did. We’re used to bingeing on TV these days, but theatre? Not so much. You still have to get dressed for it, for starters, rather than lounging on the sofa in your PJs. It gave things a sense of ceremony. Despite its length, however, My Brilliant Friend is brilliantly pacy, and flashes by.
“I really enjoyed it – and my patience is very thin,” says Jude, after sitting in the dark for five hours on the nicest day of the year. Just as these books turn into obsessions, with people gobbling them up rapidly, so squishing the story into one day-long immersion seems to work. The slightly soapy plotting comes through, giving the play that addictive, just-one-more-episode quality – at each interval, I was hungry for the next instalment.
I suspect if you haven’t read the books, the whole thing might be hard to follow but, for Ferrante fans, it’s a luxuriating wallow in the world of two women we already know, and love, and crave more of.