The people of war-time Cephalonia fearfully await the entrance of their Italian occupiers. After a hurried hour of fairly disjointed scenes, I am almost as apprehensive as the Cephalonians. Puccini’s ‘Nessun Dorma’ blossoms out to fill the empty spaces crowding the auditorium. Captain Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni) has arrived with his chorus of Italian soldiers to transform an unremarkable evening into a magical, moving immersion in Louis de Bernières’ exquisite story that so many of us know and love.
No one can fault director Melly Still’s ambition in bringing Captain Corelli’s Mandolin to the stage. It was always going to be a challenge to capture, in a two-and-a-half hour performance, this richly-woven 500-page novel that meanders gloriously across 50 years of Cephalonian history, pausing to indulge in a languorous lagoon of war-time romance before plunging back into the implacable sweeping torrent of history. In the end, Rona Munro’s adaptation achieves this to good effect, but it takes Corelli’s appearance to knit the disparate elements of the narrative into the majestic performance it eventually becomes.
Entering the theatre, we are greeted by Mayou Trikerioti’s simple set of herb gardens and step-ladders which effortlessly evoke the sleepy life of the Greek island in the 1940’s. A huge rumpled screen of burnished copper projects sprays of the celebrated Cephalonian light shimmering over the stage.
However, as the action begins, the difficulties of truncating this novel soon become a little too apparent. The support cast verge on caricatures, whilst the inclusion of sections of de Bernières’s sparkling prose jars with moments of extreme bluntness in the script. Possibly lines such as “your dad’s weird” are attempting (rather redundantly) to relate to a modern audience, but they only undermine the stately elegance of the paternalistic world it otherwise aims for. At the time of Corelli’s entrance, the stand-out performers are Luisa Guerreiro and Elizabeth Mary Williams who respectively embody, with startling skill, a bleating goat with impeccable comic timing who delights in eating Dr Iannis’s (Joseph Long) papers, and a lithe, playful pine marten, usually found dangling upside-down from the step-ladder.
The second half is almost unrecognisable. Mugnaioni skips enchantingly around the stage and the time that was previously so restricted is lavished on his growing affection for Madison Clare’s Pelagia, who develops into the wry, spirited, self-possessed character the narrative deserves. Finally, we are able to drift fully into the luminous Cephalonian world in which the gentle passage of time is punctuated only by refrains of Verdi and snail-gathering expeditions. Although not technically perfect, there is a lyrical, captivating resonance to Mugnaioni’s on-stage mandolin-playing which adds a wonderful new dimension to the show.
When the political reality inevitably re-intrudes into the island idyll it does so with devastating poignancy. Relying on striking choreography, executed in impeccable synchronisation with the potent soundtrack, the bloody confusion of war is vividly conjured up as the brutal tragedy that has been rumbling in the background takes centre stage. However deep we might bury our heads in the island sand, we cannot ignore the bitter, violent, conflict-riven world forever.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin may seem to be a gorgeous oasis of escapism. But with its grumbling empathy, its endless reserves of resilience and hope, it also shows that, no matter how troubled the changing world, there is nevertheless compassion, beauty and merriment to be found in the most unexpected of people and places, if only we are open-hearted enough to look for them.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is playing until 12 May. For more information and tickets, visit the Rose Theatre Kingston website.