Writer: Rona Munro from the book by Louis de Bernières
Director: Melly Still
Reviewer: James Garrington
There are always huge challenges involved in adapting a well-known book for the stage. How faithful can or should it be to the original, how easily can we portray inner thoughts, how can we deal with characters ageing? With Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, the team has managed to create something which, while it can never be entirely faithful to the original work, manages to keep the spirit of the story and also stand as a piece of theatre in its own right.
It’s set on the Greek island of Cephalonia, where Dr Iannis lives with his beautiful daughter Pelagia and an assortment of colourful village characters. Their lives change when war arrives, and first the Italian then the German armies occupy the island – but despite their differences, love develops between Pelagia and the musical Captain Corelli.
While there is a lot that is good about the play, this is not always the case. For many people, there is some background reading they should do before watching to understand the history of the area, particularly during the 1930s and 1940s. There is a nicely concise precis in the show programme, but without that background, a lot of what happens – particularly during the first act – could be completely confusing. It doesn’t help that many of the cast, male and female, play many rôles. This is something we’re well used to these days of course, but the way they switch between being villagers, partisan fighters, Italian soldiers and the German army, often in rapid succession with just a change of hat, sometimes starts to become difficult to follow – particularly early on when you don’t immediately understand the relevance of each piece of headgear.
Director Melly Still and designer Mayou Trikerioti have focussed on performance and storytelling rather than realism in both portrayal and design. The whole thing is more representative than realistic, though it doesn’t suffer as a result. The set is simple and striking, dominated by two large sheets of bent and battered copper, which serve alternately as a backdrop, a focus for lighting effects and a projection screen. A stepladder represents a doorway, long beams create a boundary or a seat, and when the fighting starts all of the weapons are imaginary.
At its heart, the production has two main themes – the love story and the harshness and brutality of war. Alex Mugnaioni is a tender and thoughtful Corelli, the man caught up in the war when he’d rather follow a musical career (playing his mandolin live on stage – and playing it very well, too). He sees himself less as an invader than an unwelcome visitor – he knows the locals don’t want him there, he doesn’t want to be there either and he’s trying to rock the boat as little as possible. Madison Clare is a suitably resentful and straightforward Pelagia, fighting against her growing affection for the Captain so when it bursts out, it comes with a passionate intensity. Joseph Long is a caring Dr Iannis, and there’s good support from Ashley Gayle as Pelagia’s former suitor Mandras, and Eve Polycarpou as his mother Drosoula. Two of the most mesmerising performances come from characters who don’t speak a word – Luisa Guerreiro is a wonderfully observed goat, and Elizabeth Mary Williams is a deliciously portrayed pine marten.
One of the unexpected highlights of the production is the music. It’s partly original by Harry Blake, partly Italian opera and partly German pub songs all sung on stage by the cast, and it provides a good backdrop to a story – a story that is far from easy and relaxing viewing, but which is sure to stir up emotions in all but the most hardened of theatre-goer.
Runs Until 15 June 2019 and on tour | Image: Marc Brenner