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Theatre review: My Brilliant Friend

Love, loyalty and
loathing: Niamh
Cusack (left) is
Lenu; Catherine
McCormack plays


My Brilliant Friend

Olivier, National Theatre, London ★★★★✩

PULSING with blood, passion and rage, this adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s celebrated quartet of Neapolitan novels is thrillingly alive. At its throbbing heart is a decades-long female friendship, which is marked by a spiteful act of childhood treachery and becomes a bond that both damages and sustains, a complex knot of love, loyalty and loathing, of fierce pride and corrosive jealousy. Written by April De Angelis, the two-part play is also a rich, sprawling evocation of 60 years of post-war Italian social history. In a ravishing, epic production by Melly Still, it’s so vivid and visceral that you can almost taste it.

Lenu (Niamh Cusack) and Lila (Catherine McCormack) are clever, resilient daughters of impoverished Naples, in a neighbourhood conjured by designer Soutra Gilmour with gliding stairways, balconies, and lines of billowing laundry.

Violence is only ever a breath away, in patriarchal households and on the streets, where women fight for their tiny scrap of power — usually sexual — and sharp-suited Camorra mobsters swagger. Lenu and Lila, who adore stories, cling on to words and imagination, as if to a slippery rope that might rescue them. But while the doggedly determined Lenu manages to forge a career as a writer, wild Lila, incandescent with sensuality and fury, is abused and exploited, before mysteriously vanishing, leaving Lenu haunted by memories.

If at times detail is swept away by the restless swirl of the narrative, the cumulative emotional force is seismic. This is a major theatrical achievement: big, bold and, yes — quite brilliant.