Theatre review: Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

The hit novel comes to the stage at Rose Theatre Kingston

To bring Louis de Bernières’ epic tale of love and war to the stage is an ambitious undertaking indeed. Portraying the devastation wrought by the bloody battles is one thing, condensing the complex emotional journey of the three star-crossed lovers in a couple of hours is another.

In the 90s, the book, set in Kefalonia, was a smash hit, telling the story of a doctor’s daughter, who falls for a local fisherman, but whose simple life is turned upside down, both by war and the arrival of a charming officer in the Italian army. The book caused controversy in Greece with its depiction of its resistance fighters. The film also caused a stir, predominantly because of a questionable Italian accent by Nicolas Cage, who played the eponymous Corelli.

Some pressure then for anyone who tries to bring it to the theatre. To say that Rona Munro, who adapted the tale, and director Melly Still, had their work cut out is understatement indeed. Perhaps with the film serving as a warning, the actors in this adaptation stick to their own accents. And rather than attempting a realistic battle, various abstract effects are deployed to give the impression of the carnage. The set is little more than a giant sheet of crumpled metal, on to which the effects are projected: we see the blinding lights of a firing squad, we see blood seeping as soldiers lie dying in battle, other times it is used as an outline of the island or the movement of the sea. It is hugely impressive.

The animal characters in the book are also included, portrayed with skill by Luisa Guerreiro as the mischievous goat and Elizabeth Mary Williams as a lithe pine marten. At first, I wondered at the addition of the goat, which played for laughs with its bleating and the chewing of foliage, as it had the potential to detract from the drama of the piece. But it became part and parcel of the tale, and when it met its end on the plates of the soldiers, we felt the distress of the doctor’s family.

Given the necessary time constraints of the theatre, some simplification of the story is to be expected. The character complexities inevitably are not as hefty as in the book. We feel the conflict and pain of the lovers, played brilliantly by Madison Clare as Pelagia and Alex Mugnaioni as Corelli, but ultimately it is not as satisfying as it should be.

Music is used with great impact – the anguish of a mother’s cry is amplified into a heart-breaking and beautiful wail, the Italian soldiers’ opera singing is brilliant, and the mandolin, of course, plays a central role.

The result an epic production: it is not a slave to the book, and the confines of the theatre mean it cannot possibly be, but it successfully creates its own identity as a powerful and compelling piece of theatre.



Alex Mugnaioni and members of the company (photographer Mark Brenner)

Alex Mugnaioni and members of the company (photographer Mark Brenner) 

  • Presented by Rose Theatre Kingston, Neil Laidlaw, Church & State Productions and Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Read our interviews with Alex and Madison, and Louis de Bernieres….