The world stage premiere of Elena Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend previews at the Rose Theatre in Kingston this month. Rosanna Greenstreet talks to the team who made it happen
I doubt there is a book club in the country which hasn’t discussed the work of Elena Ferrante, the pseudonym of the secretive writer behind the bestselling quartet of novels that begins with My Brilliant Friend.
First published in Italian during the early 1990s, Ferrante’s work was translated into English in 2012. Having read My Brilliant Friend, I ripped through the subsequent books – The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay and, the final novel, The Story of the Lost Child – transfixed by the lives of the protagonists, Lenu and Lila. And I wasn’t the only one. Last year a friend made a pilgrimage to Naples, where the books are set, as a direct result of her Ferrante fascination.
Now, thrillingly, the books are coming to the stage. As The New York Times so rightly declared, this will be a “literary phenomenon turned theatrical event”. Nor need we travel to Italy, or even the West End, to witness it. For this world premiere is happening in Kingston, at the Rose.
The man behind the coup is Jerry Gunn, who has been at the theatre since 2006 and is now the executive producer in charge of creative output.
“We’d been talking about doing a contemporary adaptation, and the chairman’s wife made us aware of the phenomenon that was Elena Ferrante,” he explains. “I read the books and approached the publisher, Europa Editions, which also acts as agent for
Ms Ferrante. We had a few conversations and then moved into full negotiation. When I came back from Rome, I had the rights to the first stage adaptation of the titles. It’s very exciting!”
Indeed. Moreover, given that the Neapolitan novels have been published in 40 different countries, it is also a truly impressive achievement.
As for the timing, it was felicitous in the extreme. The Rose announced its catch last October, just as an Italian investigative journalist was taking to The New York Review of Books blog to claim that he had unmasked Elena as a Rome-based translator called Anita Raja.
Jerry Gunn with former Assistant Producer Naomi Webb
“It was uncanny,” says Gunn. “But we‘ve not made any mention of the uncloaking of her identity. It was big news at the time, but it hasn’t surfaced since, and I think that’s right.”
Most fans would agree. The general consensus is that Ms Ferrante, whoever she may be, has chosen to be anonymous and should be left in peace to create more of the fiction that we so love. Certainly that is the view of April de Angelis, the English playwright of part-Sicilian descent who is charged with the mammoth task of adapting the books for the Rose.
“I don’t want to know who she is,” she insists. “I think it’s a really exciting gesture not to give yourself a known form, face or name. It’s an artistic act. When you are known, it constrains the imagination of the reader. This way one is liberated to read the book and question how fictional, or how autobiographical, it is. Who is the person that created it? A man? A woman? All these questions are kept alive.”
Ferrante’s novels chart the complex, rivalrous friendship between two women, Lenu and Lila, that begins in a poor, postwar neighbourhood of Naples and endures throughout their lives. Editing the intricacies of their burgeoning careers, passionate love affairs and family struggles – of which the four books are full – must have been a daunting assignment.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the result is a duology: two plays – under the banner of My Brilliant Friend – that can be seen on the same or different days, as with the trilogy The Wars of the Roses, directed by Trevor Nunn at the Rose last year.
“I decided that each book would be one half of one play,” explains de Angelis, whose recent West End productions include Jumpy and After Electra. “I just did this mechanical thing of underlining anything I thought dramatically interesting or really significant to the story. That’s how you pare it down.”
April de Angelis
The books are so heavily populated that Ferrante provides an index of characters at the beginning of each novel. Presumably many of them have been cut?
“Some of the lesser characters, yes. For example, Nino Sarratore is essential, but Gino the pharmacist’s son has gone: you can’t have the story without Nino, but without Gino you can.”
As one might expect, de Angelis has had no direct contact with the novelist, but Ferrante has read the script.
“I sent off the first draft and she approved it, thank God! I was forwarded an email saying that she had enjoyed it. Her only caveat was that I had to be careful not to make it too oneiric. Make of that what you will.”
Oneiric? How perfect that an email from a literary giant should contain a word requiring a dictionary to decipher. What does it actually mean?
“Exactly!” exclaims a delighted de Angelis. “It’s from the Greek and means ‘dreamlike’.
Directing My Brilliant Friend is Melly Still, whose credits include work at the National Theatre, the Young Vic and Glyndebourne. She has cast the experienced Irish actress Niamh Cusack as Lenu, who also narrates the story; Catherine McCormack (pictured with Niamh below), who shot to fame when she played Mel Gibson’s wife in the film Braveheart, as Lila; and relative newcomer Toby Wharton as their love interest, Nino.
“It felt right to cast women who could traverse the decades,” reflects Still. “Women who could access their inner seven year old, vividly recall their teenage and young adult years, yet step effortlessly into 60-year-old shoes. Most of the focus is on young adulthood; but, like memory itself, the characters spiral and leap across time and space.
Niamh Cusack with Catherine McCormack
“The content and narrative, though, belong to the memory of a woman in her 60s, and I instinctively felt that women with maturity would better meet the play’s emotional challenges. So I looked for women in their 40s and 50s. Not necessarily with profile – although these two certainly have that – but with immense skill, insight and unusual magnetism.”
As the novels hit the stage, it’s surely just a matter of time before they appear on TV too. Reports hint that the production company which adapted Gomorrah, Roberto Saviano’s book about a mafia-like organisation in Naples, has the rights to Ferrante’s work.
“I heard that the TV rights had been sold, but upon condition,” reveals Jerry Gunn. “Ms Ferrante said it had to be filmed in Italy and be in Italian, although English subtitles were fine. But we were given no such conditions. I think the idea of a stage adaptation surprised her.”
Perhaps surprise will turn to curiosity, drawing Ferrante out of hiding and into the stalls at the Rose.
“She has an invitation, but whether or not we’ll know if she’s been is a different matter,” smiles Gunn. “She may send a representative, but I really hope that she sees it herself. Then we’ll have true feedback.”
For which, of course, he may need a very good dictionary.
My Brilliant Friend, Mar 11 – Apr 2; previews from Feb 25 at the Rose Theatre. Visit rosetheatrekingston.org for tickets
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