Louis de Bernieres’s 1994 novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, runs to over 500 pages, divided into over 70 chapters and became a two-hour movie in 2001. So the ambitious challenge for stage adapter Rona Munro and director Melly Still, is how to tell the story which spans about fifty years of life on the Greek island of Cephalonia. The resulting production is an extraordinarily creative mixture of narrative storytelling, balletic choreography, moving performances and exquisite lighting and projections. It takes its time in telling the episodic story, at times perhaps a little too slowly, in the two hours twenty minutes running time, but it is very successful in creating the period and feel of Greece with a minimum of props.
The story focuses on Dr Iannis (a wonderful performance by Joseph Long) , his daughter Pelagia (the delightful Madison Clare), her love for first the young Greek fisherman Mandras (a powerful Ashley Gayle) and then the Italian Captain (the quietly unassuming Alex Mugnaioni) against the background of first the Italian invasion of the island and then the German tanks during the Second World War. The ensemble cast of 15 create the pre-war life on the island, the Italian army drawing the Greeks into the war, the island invasion and occupation and post war earthquake with real simplicity and charm. However, one big flaw in the structure is that the Captain does not really appear until the end of the first act and until then the story is told mainly through the eyes of another Italian soldier Carlo (Ryan Donaldson) and his bromance with another soldier, Francesco (Fred Fergus).
The stage design by Mayou Trickerioti is necessarily minimalist but dominated by two large sheets of crumpled metal, hung centre stage, on which projections and lights create the shimmering sea reflection, chalk drawings and the explosive impact of the earthquake, simply set the atmosphere of each scene. When they hide in the underground cellar it is cleverly evoked by a single box. When they suffer in the cold winter or get caught in branches of the landscape they are effectively created by material or ropes strung across the stage by the actors. The scenes of fishing and snail hunting are brilliantly created with the simplest of effects. It is imaginatively and elegantly staged and scenes flow from one to another with ease.
While we emotionally engage with the Doctor, his daughter and her two loves, many of the early scenes are stolen by the pet goat, brilliantly played by Luisa Guerreiro and the rescued Pine Marten (Elizabeth Mary Williams) who without animal costumes grab our attention even when not centre stage and play pivotal roles in bringing Pelagia and the Captain together . Both are experienced physical comedy and circus performers and their experience shines through their performances.
Another evocative and powerful influence on the production is Eve Polycarpou as Drosoula, the mother of Mandras who creates the picture-perfect image of a Greek Mama fussing and lamenting over her son. Each of these carefully created characters is blended together to create the feel and atmosphere of the island and period which with the snatches of opera, mandolin playing, and an excellent soundtrack paints the picture against which the love story and horrors of war are played out.
This is theatre at its best, taking an impossible task of an epic book and presenting it in an emotionally engaging, visually stunning and totally absorbing way, with a faultless ensemble cast.
It is on tour now until end of June and worth catching in Bath, Newcastle, Birmingham, Edinburgh or Glasgow.
Reviewed by Nick Wayne
Photo: Marc Brenner
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