Reimagining Old Friends at the National Theater in London

Reimagining Old Friends at the National Theater in London

LONDON — Shall we all speed-read together? I mean, as in consume hundreds and hundreds of pages as fast as the human eye permits.

We’ll let our attention alight briefly on names of characters, central plot points and major thematic statements, via a text that has been helpfully illuminated with neon marker. And all those pesky auxiliary words used to summon nuance and detail will runtogetherlikethis into an inky cloud.

Such is the experience of watching “My Brilliant Friend,” the breathlessly paced, two-part stage interpretation of Elena Ferrante’s “Neapolitan Novels” at the National Theater. Adapted by April De Angelis and directed by Melly Still, this production compresses the acclaimed four-volume portrait of two women who come of age in mid-20th-century Naples into less than five hours of galloping onstage synopsis.

Though I haven’t seen any of the Italian television version shown on HBO (eight episodes so far, with a projected 24 more to come), I eagerly devoured each of Ferrante’s books as soon as they were published in English, so I was generally able to follow what was going on in De Angelis’s version.

But heaven help the innocent theatergoer who meets Ferrante’s characters for the first time in this production by the National Theater and the Rose Theater Kingston. After watching both parts of the show in successive performances, I saw fellow audience members stumbling out with glazed eyes and what-was-that-all-about expressions. “Well, it might make a good movie,” I heard one of them say to another.

“My Brilliant Friend” was one of three new theatrical adaptations I recently caught at the National, each of which inevitably inspired reflections on their differences from the works that inspired them and the perils and pleasures of recontextualizing the familiar. Less than 10 hours after arriving in London, I was plunged into the churning, fantastical waters of “The Ocean at the End of the Lane,” based on Neil Gaiman’s popular 2013 novel about a British boy’s encounter with cosmic forces of evil, which I had read on the plane from New York.

Two days later, I spent time with a set of unhappy women I have been enthralled and irritated by since I was 12. They would be the title characters of Chekhov’s “Three Sisters,” who have been reimagined by the playwright Inua Ellams as residents of the civil-war-torn Nigeria of the late 1960s.

Curiously, of these three productions, “My Brilliant Friend” was both the most faithful, in literal terms, to its source material and the furthest from what makes its prototype so seductive. The play manages to cover most of the entire five-decade course of Ferrante’s plot, while dexterously signaling political and social changes in Italy via period pop songs and video projections.

There are more than three dozen individual characters listed in the program, which doesn’t account for the many other figures who show up to flesh out scenes depicting weddings, riots and natural disasters. They are portrayed by a cast of 24 humans and several winsome puppets, who all tirelessly dash up and down the four steep staircases that dominate Soutra Gilmour’s otherwise minimalist set, while the revolving stage of the Olivier Theater turns. And turns. And turns.

So very much happens in the course of human events here that when an earthquake hits Naples, it feels neither more nor less convulsive than the more soap opera-ish plot turns that have been occurring all along. At the center of this off-the-charts Richter scale tumult are two enduring female frenemies, and fortunately they are portrayed here, from childhood into late middle age, by Niamh Cusack and Catherine McCormack.

Cusack is Lenù Greco, the bookish one who studies hard and escapes from their old, squalid Neapolitan neighborhood to become a celebrated novelist. McCormack is the willful and wayward Lila Cerullo, a person of infinite intelligence and perversity to match.

Both actresses are great fun to watch, especially McCormack, who has the showier part. But with reversals of feeling and fortune happening so abruptly, it’s hard to make much sense of this central relationship. Delivered in theatrical shorthand, finer shades of ambivalence in Ferrante’s prose become baldfaced contradictions.

“Three Sisters” is nearly as replete with historical detail and eventfulness as “My Brilliant Friend.” The script by Ellams (who wrote the wonderful “Barber Shop Chronicles”) provides equivalents for each of Chekhov’s original characters, starting with the wistful, provincial siblings of the title.

They are embodied with commanding grace by Sarah Niles, Natalie Simpson and Racheal Ofori. It’s Lagos, instead of Moscow, that’s now the unreachable destination of their dreams.

Ellams’s title characters are hemmed in by newly insurmountable obstacles when war erupts between Nigeria and the breakaway republic of Biafra, where they reside. Chekhov’s discussions about the meaning — and meaninglessness — of life have accordingly been expanded to embrace subjects like the evils of British neocolonialism and the erasure of cultural history.

In this version, the women’s new and unloved sister-in-law (an entertainingly overripe Ronke Adekoluejo) isn’t just a pushy parvenu; she’s Yoruban and may even be an enemy spy. And every so often, a spectral figure in ceremonial garb — a sort of spirit of place incarnate — shows up to roam Katrina Lindsay’s expansive indoor-outdoor set and chant forebodingly in the Nigerian language of Ibo.

It is to the credit of Ellams and the director Nadia Fall that so much historical and atmospheric detail is folded into “Three Sisters” without undue congestion. But the bigger picture provided here tends to make the sisters’ relentless worries — domestic, romantic and existential — feel kind of incidental.

When the threesome started moaning per usual after the local town market had been bombed, with devastating casualties, I found myself thinking of what Humphrey Bogart told Ingrid Bergman at the end of “Casablanca”: “The problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.”

Of course, when you’re still a child — like the reluctant hero of Gaiman’s “Ocean” — nothing seems more important than your own private fears. Gaiman’s book ingeniously gives a cosmic dimension to such solipsism, as a 7-year-old boy in rural England finds his quiet existence rattled by life-consuming, supernal forces of darkness.

Joel Horwood’s stage adaptation of Gaiman’s novel, directed by Katy Rudd, ages up its unnamed central character, who is now 12 and played by the very good Samuel Blenkin (and by Justin Salinger as the man he becomes). The play also diverges from the novel in making its young hero motherless.

Our hero’s allies in his battle against darkness are a mysteriously wise girl named Lettie Hempstock (Marli Siu, charming) and her earthy but otherworldly ma (Carlyss Peer) and grandma (Josie Walker). His mortal enemy is his dad’s perky new lodger (Pippa Nixon, having a great time), who sheds human form to become one really scary evil fairy known as Skarthach. (Despite placing a pubescent lad in mostly female company, sex never rears its inconvenient head here.)

This creature and the ungodly darkness from which she emerges are brought to nastily lyrical life by an expert team that includes Fly Davis (set), Samuel Wyer (costumes and puppets), Paule Constable (lighting) and the genius movement director Steven Hoggett. As such, “Ocean” is a pretty entertaining spook house.

What makes Gaiman’s book so arresting, though, is its summoning of the awful sense we have as young children that our darkest fantasies may be real. In externalizing those internal feelings, and making its hero an adolescent, Horwood’s play feels safer and more predictable, more in the mold of a conventional young adult adventure fantasy.

I completed my marathon of stage adaptations at the National with the impression that in such ventures, something is perhaps always lost in translation. All the productions did, though, make me savor afresh what I had enjoyed and admired about the pieces that inspired them. I am now wondering, by the way, if it’s too soon to start rereading Ferrante’s Naples quartet.

My Brilliant Friend
Through Feb. 22 at the National Theater, London;

Three Sisters
Through Feb. 19 at the National Theater, London;

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Through Jan. 15 at the National Theater, London;

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