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Putting Elena Ferrante on the Stage

OtherPutting Elena Ferrante on the Stage

One day, a few years ago, the British playwright April De Angelis was wandering a bookstore near Goodge Street, in Central London, looking for a work on Artemisia Gentileschi, the seventeenth-century Italian painter and follower of Caravaggio. In 1611, Gentileschi was raped by an associate of her father’s, Agostino Tassi. At a prolonged rape trial, she was tortured with thumbscrews to determine if she was lying, but Tassi was ultimately convicted. Years later, Gentileschi became known for renderings of violent biblical scenes featuring strong heroines—beheadings, more beheadings—and a portrait of herself as Catherine of Alexandria, the female martyr who escaped death by spiked wheel. Researching a play about an aging female artist, De Angelis was drawn to the story. “It’s about revenge, and putting your pain into art,” she said.

On the way out of the bookstore, she spotted a table of books with pastel illustrations on their covers. “Not a bright and brassy kind of thing,” she recalled. “I just thought, What are they?” They were the quartet of books known as the Neapolitan novels, by the contemporary Italian writer Elena Ferrante, about whom little is known. (“Elena Ferrante” is a pseudonym; her identity is a carefully guarded secret.) Like Gentileschi, Ferrante often deals in female rage: the series, beginning with “My Brilliant Friend” and ending with “The Story of the Lost Child,” tells the story of the friendship between two young girls, Lenu and Lila, growing up in the slums of postwar Naples, Italy. As they venture outside the neighborhood, their anger—at the injustice of their circumstances, at their husbands, often at each other—burns brightly. “It’s women’s anger made real,” De Angelis told me recently. “It’s so fantastic.”

The books, translated into English by Ann Goldstein, are international best-sellers with an acclaimed HBO adaptation that is full of gritty realism and cinematic Italian landscapes. Now, De Angelis has written a version for the stage at the National Theatre, directed by Melly Still, which brings all four books together, in two parts that, together, span nearly five hours. “It’s a monumental task,” Robert O’Dowd, the chief executive of the Rose Theatre, in Kingston-Upon-Thames, told me. The play was commissioned for the Rose in 2016, and it débuted there the following year with a cast of twelve. At the National, that number has increased to twenty-four actors, which, combined with the production’s rotating sets, brings the combustible energy of the neighborhood to life. Niamh Cusack and a brilliant Catherine McCormack play Lenu and Lila through the turbulent decades, from childhood to old age. The actors speak in their own accents, drawn from all over the U.K. and Ireland, which I at first found unsettling, though it did have the effect of broadening the story. “The decision was ‘Let’s not try to imitate—let’s let everyone speak in their own voices and give the audience credit they can make the imaginative leap,’ ” De Angelis said.

In the books, Lenu and Lila often imagine dark fates for their enemies: twisting limbs, piercing skin. (The neighborhood is rife with violence.) But these scenes take place in the minds of the protagonists and represent a challenge for any adaptor of Ferrante: How to bring a rich interior life into the physical space of a play? “Oh, my god, that’s the hardest bit,” De Angelis said. She was seated in the café of the Hayward Gallery, an angled, brutalist building on London’s South Bank, not far from the National Theatre. De Angelis, who is fifty-nine and part Sicilian, has frizzy auburn hair and was wearing a thrifted blazer. “Plays have a different kind of rhythm,” she said.

De Angelis was at the Hayward to see the recent retrospective of the British abstract painter Bridget Riley. She wandered through the gallery staring at the enormous, vertigo-inducing works. De Angelis likes to think about artistic notions in comparison: “I can’t understand anything on its own; it has to be in relation to something else,” she said. She stopped before a black-and-white polka-dotted one, which seemed to turn in on itself, like an optical illusion on the back of an old cereal box. “Oh, I love it,” she said. “It’s sort of reinterpreting a contract, because you’re supposed to look at art, but this is hard to look at.” It reminded her of Ferrante’s work. “It’s hard to read—do you read it as biography? As fiction? Who wrote it? It’s, like, you can’t sink into the subject position,” she said. She frowned at the painting. “It would be so bad if you were drunk.”

De Angelis’s adaptation is shot through with surrealist breaks from reality, in which Lenu and Lila’s fears and imaginings take over the stage. In the first scene of the play, Lila throws Lenu’s doll into a dark cellar owned by Don Achille, a thug who rules over the neighborhood, and then Lenu throws Lila’s doll there, too, in retaliation. They can’t find the dolls, and, as they approach his door to ask for them, he emerges like a monster, huge and shadowy, before returning to his normal form. When Lila is betrayed at her wedding reception, her violent fantasy—in which she tears her victim’s eyes from his face—is enacted onstage. (The wedding guests go on unperturbed, save for Lenu, who helps.) Watching it felt destabilizing, as if, having only read of Lila’s anger, I could now feel it as well.

For De Angelis, the biggest challenge was the scope of the books. “I mean, the sheer scale of it,” she said, her eyes growing wide. “What’s the path you’re going to go through?” Ferrante’s story spans some sixteen hundred pages and several decades of Italian history. There are enough characters that the Rose Theatre included a family tree in the programs. Having won the commission, De Angelis had four months to turn around a draft script. She compressed each book into one half of a play, cutting several side characters—Gino, the pharmacist’s son; Ada, Antonio’s sister—not directly related to the complicated dynamics of Lenu and Lila’s friendship. “That’s the real dramatic thing,” she said. “When in the whole of literature do you get two women protagonists like that?” Watching it in the course of one long day, I sensed some of my fellow theatregoers fading as we rounded part two, and occasionally I wished there weren’t quite so many decades to move through. Mostly, though, I felt giddy and snug, caught up in the drama of the neighborhood.

In the gallery, De Angelis moved to a new set of paintings. “All the characters, it’s almost impossible, certainly in one reading, to make sense of all the relationships. It’s so excessive in a way,” she said. “With Lila, she’s never quite stable. She’s always a chameleon, always changing identities, and then she disappears into something abstract in the end.” Both characters, like the series itself, are resistant to easy categorization. “I think that’s part of what it’s supposed to do: it doesn’t want you to settle in too easily, or to be too comfortable.” She paused before another work. “Like this lovely painting. You can’t process this,” she said. “You’ve got to stay with it longer because of the unresolved nature of it, because of the questions.”

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