The celebrated 1990s novel by Louis de Bernieres has already been adapted for the screen and now comes to the stage and the West End.
A complex and muddled love story is brought to life in this ambitious adaptation by Rona Munro, directed by Melly Still. Adding some traditional Greek vocalisations, the titular mandolin (and imagined orchestrations) and the odd Italian operatic aria, this flirts with being a musical but retains its ponderous dialogue and scene-setting from the source material.
For much of the first half, Alex Mugnaioni’s Captain Corelli is on the sidelines, watching the story unfold in Cephalonia before his character joins in. Pelagia (Madison Clare), the educated daughter of the local doctor, falls for the physical charms of local soldier Mandras (Ashley Gayle) and they are betrothed on the eve of war despite their clear unsuitability.
Meanwhile, Italian sergeant Carlo (Ryan Donaldson) falls in love with sensitive comrade Francesco (Fred Fergus) as they bond on the battlefield. Carlo’s strength and loyalty becomes key to the fate of his Captain in act two.
With an innovative use of a set which suggests a range of locations, and projections which range from describing the island to providing a wash of blood at times of conflict, this production helps move a ponderous piece of theatre together.
It may be hard to care for the pompous musical Captain and the haughty Greek girl who spurns, then loves him, but with characters on the periphery to help like Carlo, the idealistic doctor (Joseph Long), the tough mother of Mandras (Eve Polycarpou), and the family’s goat and pine marten (Luisa Guerreiro and Elizabeth Mary Williams, both gifted and inventive physical theatre and circus performers), their story has a solid base.
Less powerful are the politics of war and the interminable battle scenes, although Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and Jon Nicholls’s sound design evokes the tension and danger of conflict effectively.
A lengthy show at 2 hr 40, this probably does more justice to the book than the film, but a prior primer about the Second World War, the partisans, and the fate of Cephalonia (shown to become a tourist trap by the time two generations have grown) may be in order to avoid confusion.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin continues at the Harold Pinter Theatre until the end of August. Photo credits Marc Brenner.