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Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Melly Still and Rona Munro’s adaptation of Louis de Bernières classic novel is a triumph of theatre - turning a glorious mixture of drama, dance, movement and music into a satisfying whole.

All photographs by Marc Brenner

First came the book, then the film and now the play. It was always going to be a huge task to shoehorn Louis de Bernières’s epic novel, a Second World War love story set against a backdrop of conflict, death and destruction into a single two-and-half-hour stage production.

That director and Olivier and Tony Award nominee Melly Still and adaptor Rona Munro do so is a triumph not of style over substance but of theatricality over realism.

That is, theatricality in its finest sense – using the vast stage to turn a glorious mixture of drama, dance, movement and music into a satisfying whole.

Admittedly, there are flaws. The story is a complex one. Set on the Greek island of Cephalonia it charts the romantic entanglements of doctor’s daughter Pelagia (a moving performance by Madison Clare) first with local fisherman Mandras (an impressive Ashley Gayle) and then the music-loving and mandolin-playing Captain Corelli, played with a touching and awkward charm by Alex Mugnaioni.

That Corelli is part of the Italian occupying forces gives the story its dramatic tension, but the fact that he doesn’t appear on stage until near the end of the play’s first half lessens his impact and awkwardly foreshortens what should be a lingering romance.

But it’s difficult not to get caught up in the grand sweep of this tale of loss, love and redemption. Music plays a large part. The Italian soldiers march in with an irresistible rendition of “Nessum Dorma” while the Germans who will soon take over the island with tragic consequences, counter that with a sinister version of Marlene Dietrich’s “Falling in Love Again”. And all the time Corelli’s mandolin playing provides an exquisite and satisfying soundtrack.

Movement, whether it’s civilians and Italians fleeing the Germans or a mad scramble through thorny thickets is accompanied by superb lighting and the stunning use of simple props – string for a forest and a mass of muslin for fishing nets and funeral shrouds. And above Mayou Trikerioti’s impressive set, loom two huge squares of crumpled metal that act as a screen on which German tanks or earthquake tremors are suggested in an inspired use of son et lumière by lighting designer Malcolm Rippeth.

There’s humour, too. Cirque du Soleil performer Luisa Guerreiro almost steals the show as an incredibly lifelike pet goat while Elizabeth Mary Williams is equally impressive as a rescued pine marten. Pelagia’s father, Dr Iannis (a beautifully balanced performance by Joseph Long), displays a pressing need to constantly urinate over the flower bed while elsewhere relaying snippets of local history or keeping tabs on the progress of the war and its proponents – “of course they’re crazy, they’re Italians.”

Eve Polycarpou also impresses as the burdened mother of fisherman turned freedom fighter Mandras, while Ryan Donaldson tackles the role of an Italian soldier who’s a tragic survivor and an eventual hero with a great feeling of dignity and enormous sensitivity.

So it’s a complex and often complicated evening. You have to keep your wits about you and keep pace with a story that can change direction more often than a London bus. If you do, you’ll be rewarded with something only a stage production can do – enfold you, enliven you and leave you enriched and enlightened.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is at the Theatre Royal Bath, Tues 14 – Sat 18 May as part of a national tour. www.theatreroyal.org.uk

Review by John Clarke

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