Writer: Louis de Bernières
Adaptor: Rona Munro
Director: Melly Still
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Setting a fictional romance against the backdrop of real events in Greece during World War II, Louis de Bernières’ 1994 novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin became a worldwide hit. Many thought that the lavish 2001 film version suffered badly from miscasting, but, unencumbered by pressure to place star names in plum roles, Melly Still’s production of Rona Munro’s adaptation for the stage claims a head start over it.
The setting is the Greek island, Cephalonia – “the bridge between the mundane and the immortal”. Munro retains the flavour of de Bernières’ lyrical style and remains broadly faithful to his narrative, charting the perilous tracks of love and war. The play begins with the War seeming far away, but soon Greece is in conflict with Italy and then Germany, leading to an atrocity the memory of which may now have become overshadowed by larger ones.
The island is home to the widower, Dr Iannis (Joseph Long), a dispenser of medicine and wisdom, who lives with his beautiful young daughter, Pelagia, played with spirit and charm by Madison Clare. She flirts playfully with her betrothed, Mandras (Ashley Gayle), while he attempts to loosen the grip of his fiery mother, Drosoula (Eve Polycarpou) before leaving for war. The Italian conquerors arrive, led by their captain, Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni), a dreamily romantic musician who is a misfit in the army. Corelli, billeted at the Iannis house, begins to make music with his mandolin and affection between him and Pelagia blossoms, as sworn enemies become lovers.
It is a story that embraces familiar themes on the futility of war; “hope is a danger, love is treachery” we are told during the turbulence. Still’s direction is fittingly stirring and, only occasionally does she allow the epic to swamp the intimate, thereby obscuring key character details. However, the epic, staged with a company of 15 who play Islanders (including animals) and soldiers, is quite something to behold. The casting is perfect, the performances are strong and small touches of humour stand out, such as the arrival of the Italian army, marching while singing Nessun Dorma like half a dozen Pavarotti’s.
Mayou Trikerioti’s stage design is dominated by a structure that looks at first like a giant rock, but projections and Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting transform it to generate images of island paradise, battlefield Hell and natural disaster. Harry Blake’s original music, thrilling in the action sequences and soothing when the island is in relative peace, adds to the spectacle.
Bringing to the stage de Bernières’ curious epilogue seemed bound to be problematic and so it is, but, on the whole, this is powerful storytelling and Still’s production plays as sweetly as Corelli’s treasured instrument.
Runs until 12 May 2019 | Image: Marc Brenner