Lenu (Niamh Cusack) and Lila (Catherine McCormack) grow up together in an impoverished part of Naples. This is post war Italy, ruled by crooks and gangsters, where education for girls is seen as unnecessary and a waste of time. Whilst Lenu’s parents apprehensively agree for their daughter to pursue her education, Lila is left behind. Forced to work in her father’s shoe shop and marry at only 17, Lila begins a life full of fire, battles and disappointments whilst her childhood friend Lenu watches her friend’s life long fight for empowerment with envy.
The director Melly Still paints a vivid and atmospheric picture of Italy through the use of sound and movement whilst not shying away from the language of the play. All of the cast, except for Cusack and McCormack, take on multiple roles. This directorial choice is effective and puts a huge emphasis on the importance of the two female protagonists, yet it also creates a sense of chaos and confusion as actors switch costumes and roles within minutes. This is just one of the aspects of MY BRILLIANT FRIEND, too complex a story to stage within five hours of theatre.
De Angelis’ adaptation manages to translate Ferrante’s feminist message well and both Cusack and McCormack give outstanding and multi-layered performances. Cusack’s Lenu is a hypnotising, naïve and driven narrator of the story, whilst McCormack’s Lulu is a passionate, hungry and broken character that depicts Lulu’s most hidden desires. MY BRILLIANT FRIEND is far from being a theatrical triumph. The production feels too rushed and at times quite muddled when it comes to the clear narrative of the story but both Cusack and McCormack give tour de force performances that are worth a trip to The Rose Theatre Kingston.