The stage adaptation of Captain Corellis’ Mandolin, Louis De Bernières’ award-winning book about love in the war-torn Island of Cephalonia, has come to London’s West End after a successful regional tour.
Melly Still’s boldly innovative and physical production opened last night at the Harold Pinter Theatre and there are moments when it shocks with the horror and tragedy of war – not to mention earthquakes.
But its story-telling is uneven, often plodding, and muddled.
The first act moves at a snail’s pace while the second act isn’t sure if it’s a musical, a comedy or a devastating love story.
Bernières’ book, which was made into a moderately successful film starring Nic Cage, is set on the Greek island during the Italian and German occupation in the Second World War.
Among the locals is a genial, widowed GP, Dr Iannis, who has a habit of relieving himself on his garden herbs, and his headstrong young daughter, Pelagia, who dreams of becoming a doctor.
As the war in Europe comes increasingly closer she watches her boyfriend, Mandras, enlist and disappear into the midst of battle.
Meanwhile Cephalonia is occupied with an Italian captain billeted with the doctor and his daughter.
Corelli is a musician and reluctant soldier, and the last thing he wants is to find himself leading an occupying force against a hostile island. He’d rather write concertos or practise his mandolin,
It takes a while but he slowly breaks down Pelagia’s resistance and an illicit relationship develops.
Rona Munro’s adaptation stays faithful to the book and history but it is episodic with characters disappearing for whole chunks of the production before reappearing.
You really need to have either read the book or have some knowledge of the background to Greece’s involvement in WWII, to make full sense of what’s going on.
And Still’s stylised direction sacrifices engaging storytelling for clever stagecraft.
Many of the cast of 15 play townsfolk as well as soldiers from Greece, Italy and Germany, and it’s hard to tell which side we’re watching.
There are no guns and rifles, only lethal forefingers and sound effects, an old ladder is a doorway, two actors play animals (very impressively it has to be said) and soldiers burst into song and dance.
Meanwhile Mayou Trikerioti’s backdrop looks like a crumpled piece of tinfoil but is actually used to bathe the stage in blood red light or flashes of white during battle and earthquake scenes.
All this is fine but it detracts from the actual story and its characters. Corelli doesn’t have anything to do until post-interval when Alex Mugnaioni’s charisma lights up what had been a rather dull production.
Listening to the good doctor read from the book he is writing is incredibly boring and halts the flow of the narrative.
Oddly, we’re given a completely different production in the second act.
There’s more drama, action and tension plus a few snippets of songs from Corelli’s ad hoc Italian army choir.
The audience wants to feel more engaged with Corelli, who hints at a fascinating back-story of his own, and his relationship with the fiery Pelagia (Madison Clare).
Other characters, like Ashley Gayle’s battle-scarred Mandras; his wailing, demented mother (Eve Polycarpou); and Carlo (Ryan Donaldson) the gay, Italian soldier, suggest so much yet they are not fleshed out.
This is a brave and ambitious production but it lacks emotional power and really isn’t polished enough for the West End stage, not even as a summer filler.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is running at the Harold Pinter Theatre until August 31.
Captain Corelli's Mandolin
This is a brave and ambitious production of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin but it lacks emotional power & really isn’t polished enough for the West End stage.