CAPTAIN CORELLI’S MANDOLIN
The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 29th May, 2019
Rona Munro’s masterly adaptation of the Louis de Bernieres bestseller reimagines the novel as an exuberantly theatrical piece. Directed by Melly Still, this production uses a child-like approach: the weapons are all mimed, exploded soldiers perform pratfalls onto their backpacks – but this war game is deadly. There are consequences beyond the bang-bang-you’re-dead action. Still uses heavily stylised, emblematic elements to create some striking imagery: the dead caught in a web of death is particularly horrific. Augmented by Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting and Jon Nicholls’s sound, the storytelling is impeccable. This is grown-up theatre at its finest and the scenes of violence are all the more powerful rendered in this way.
Alex Mugnaioni is the titular officer, a remote figure at first before he comes to occupy a room in the house of Dr Iannis (an avuncular joseph Long) and insinuate himself into the affections of the doctor’s resourceful daughter Pelagia (Madison Clare). The couple’s relationship is tainted by the encroaching events of the war in Greece; their love story is searing and romantic, and we see the life-changing disruption caused not only by conflict but also by the passage of time. Mugnaioni and Clare are sweet and touching in their portrayal of these star-cross’d lovers. Corelli’s mandolin playing is a reminder of the beauty humans can create, a counterpoint to the man-made horrors of war. He plays wonderfully but will Corelli be able to pluck up the courage to do what is necessary?
The presentation may be stylised but human nature is revealed through raw emotion and truthful playing. Eve Polycarpou performs some heart-rending vocalisations as the grief-stricken Drosoula; Ryan Donaldson’s imposing presence is offset by his character’s tender nature – we feel it when Carlos falls for Francesco (Fred Fergus) and are heartbroken by Carlos’s noble act of sacrifice. Ashley Gayle is a passionate Mandras, while Stewart Scudamore brings a touch of humour as Velisaros, the local strongman.
Truly fascinating are the performances of Luisa Guerreiro as a goat and Elizabeth Mary Williams as Psipsina, a pine marten. In fact, I often found myself focussing on their behaviours while the human characters were speaking!
Mayou Trikerioti’s set, almost spartan you might say, with a stepladder used as a door and two huge copper squares suspended at the back, somehow evokes Cephalonia. There is something about the metal that suggests the history of the island – the squares serve as screens for video effects too. There is original music by Harry Blake that enhances the local colour and stirs the emotions.
Rona Munro selects from de Berniere’s rich writing so that snippets and descriptive phrases work on our imaginations – adaptation is more than just retelling the plot. While I wasn’t reduced to floods of tears as I was when I read the novel, this is a superbly effective production, both shocking and moving, and above all thoroughly absorbing.