Laura Freeman Laura Freeman

From page to stage

Laura Freeman talks to Melly Still and April De Angelis about their adaptation of the Neapolitan quartet for the Rose Theatre Kingston. Will Ferrante fangirls approve?

Reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet is a heady experience. You not only see, hear, know her characters — you can almost taste them. The villain of the first of the four books, which follow the friendship of mercurial Lila and striving Lenù from childhood into their sixties, is Don Achille, an ‘ogre’ who sweats the smells of ‘salami, provolone, mortadella, lardo and prosciutto’. Lila herself, always wriggling free of the nets of others, is ‘skinny, like a salted anchovy’. Nino, loved by both Lila and Lenù, is ‘an anomalous, sweet fruit’. Naples itself, the backdrop to the books, acting as a succubus, pulling the characters back when they try to escape, stinks of the exhaust from Fiat cars, the roasted almonds of the street sellers, fried pizza from the cafés.

How do you put all that on stage? On the page, on the nearly 1,600 pages of My Brilliant Friend (childhood), The Story of a New Name (adolescence), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (young married life), and The Story of the Lost Child (maturity, success, bereavement), you lose yourself in Lenù and Lila, in six decades of slights, quarrels and alliances, triumph and betrayal, vendetta and omertà, feuds and petty hair-pulling. Can you do all that in just four acts over two evenings?

‘When you initially set it out like that,’ says Melly Still, director of the first theatre adaptation of Ferrante’s novels, ‘it doesn’t seem as if it’s possible. There’s this strange, wonderful experience, which I think is particular to reading. It becomes personal and consummate.

‘The role of theatre is very different, because you can’t put the novels on stage. A big long mini-series — a Netflix series — could do that. You can really explore all the detail. Theatre has a different role, somehow distilling the experience of reading.

Already a subscriber? Log in

Keep reading with a free trial

Subscribe and get your first month of online and app access for free. After that it’s just £1 a week.

There’s no commitment, you can cancel any time.

Or

Unlock more articles

REGISTER

Comments

Don't miss out

Join the conversation with other Spectator readers. Subscribe to leave a comment.

Already a subscriber? Log in