For the first time, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet of novels is being brought to the stage. Justine Brooks hears how April De Angelis has adapted the intense saga about a lifelong friendship between two women into a two-part play, My Brilliant Friend.
The immersive, gripping novels of Elena Ferrante have been one of the most dramatic literary sensations of the last decade. Ferrante, or The Bard of Naples, has been named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people and the mystery of the reclusive writer’s identity only added to #FerranteFever.
Her Neapolitan Quartet, consisting of My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child, chronicles the friendship between two women, across a lifetime and against a backdrop of the political turmoil of post-war Italy.
Feminist playwright April De Angelis has just adapted the Neapolitan Quartet for the stage, cramming four novels’ worth into two plays starring Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack as Lenu (Elena) and Lila. Justine Brooks caught up with her to find out more…
What attracted you to the Neapolitan Quartet?
Some Italian friends had given me an Elena Ferrante novel to read and I quickly went on to find My Brilliant Friend, which I loved, and then read the others.
I’d just finished reading them and my agent told me that the Rose Theatre in Kingston was looking to do an adaptation. It was the wife of the chairman of the board who had suggested it, which I find really interesting, that it was put forward by a woman.
Your father is Italian; does this make your adaptation more personal?
I don’t feel like an Italian. I didn’t meet the Italian side of the family and it wasn’t part of my growing up. But I do love the place, the culture, the food, the way people are. Before writing the plays I had been to Italy, and I went to Naples because that’s where my grandmother was from.
It’s very open, it’s a working city and very laid bare. At night there are the noisy sounds of scooters being ridden through the cobbled streets, and you can see Caravaggios in churches. If you ask someone where the nearest toilet is they’ll invite you into your house. It’s incredible.
“I love the idea that you’ve got an epic story with two women at the heart of it. There are life events depicted like women starting their period for the first time, having sex and not enjoying it and getting pregnant. All this set against how important friendship is for women.”
How have you transferred the sultry atmosphere of the Neapolitan Quartet to the stage?
It relies on music, lights, design. The set is a courtyard and a lot of the scenes take place there. People come in and out of the space and the sense of community is created that way. The space is energised by fighting and shouting, and we use movement a lot.
And then there are events, such as making Melina eat soap, or Lila’s father throwing her out of the window. These have been important.
How much does the Neapolitan Quartet tick your feminist boxes?
Totally. I love the idea that you’ve got an epic story with two women at the heart of it. There are life events depicted like women starting their period for the first time, having sex and not enjoying it and getting pregnant. All this set against how important friendship is for women.
Diehard fans of Ferrante’s work will be watching your plays. How have you distilled so much into two productions?
I’m worried about people saying, “Where’s the bit where…”, or “How could you leave that character out?” I had three months to write the adaptation and didn’t make complex plans of how I was going to do it. I decided that each book would be half a play, and started from there. The journey of the friendship is the spine. I worked in an impressionistic way, looking mainly for what would make good scenes. I looked at what’s at the heart of the story.
These are tremendous, incredible books and I’ve tried to remain faithful to them, but this is a piece of theatre, it’s not a pale imitation. Fabulous music has been written for it and there’s a great cast of 12 actors; everyone but Lila and Lenu doubles. I didn’t want to spoon-feed and I hope it works.
Did you have any communication with Elena Ferrante during the writing of your adaptation?
She had to approve the first draft – the scripts have since been worked on. She sent back a message which was: “Fine, good, Don’t be too oneiric.” I had to look up the word – what a fantastic word! It means dreamlike.
What do you think of Elena Ferrante’s ‘uncovering’ last year?
How dare he do that? That’s her persona as a writer; she doesn’t want her identity to be used. And then to describe her as ‘hiding’ ‘deceiving’, using the sort of language that has been used against women for centuries. I think it was an act of jealousy.
It was always very intriguing to consider whether Elena Ferrante was a woman. Could a man have written those books? Nobody could know, and these very questions bring up ideas of whether writing is gendered. How biographical is this story? You feel that it has to have been lived.
My Brilliant Friend is on from Saturday 25 February–Sunday 2 April at Rose Theatre Kingston.
Justine lives in beautiful north Leeds with her 12-year-old daughter and a lurcher called Lionel. She runs a PR and marketing agency and is writing a novel.