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FringeReview UK 2019

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

Neil Laidlaw Church & State Productions Rose Theatre Kingston, Birmingham Repertory Theatre

Genre: Adaptation, Drama, Mainstream Theatre, New Writing, Theatre

Venue: Harold Pinter Theatre


Low Down

Adapted by Rona Munro and directed by Melly Still with music composed by Harry Blake and set and costumes by Mayou Trikerioti. Lighting by Malcolm Rippeth, projection by Dom Baker with a sound design by Jon Nicholls with movement by George Siena. Fight direction’s by John Sandeman. Additional vocal improvisations by Eve Polycarpou.


It probably helped that Rona Munro – known for epic sweep in her 2014 The James Plays – hadn’t read Louis De Bernieres’ 1994 novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.


When director Melly Still invited Munro to collaborate it must have been with a keen memory of what the dramatist accomplishes in the sheer scope of three full-length plays of the first Scottish Jameses over the 15th century. For one thing, Munro’s unerringly good at turning up history as a gleaming new truth. And she’s notably skilled at distilling faithfulness through compressions, transpositions and crucially what to leave out.


For the millions who know Corelli, the good news is they’ll be struck by the amount Munro packs in, in 2 hours 45 minutes including interval. But everyone should be awed at how quickly this moves, without a hint of longeurs. It’s not just adaptation and even direction though: the ensemble work has thrown up its own stars, new names in two scene-stealing animals, and an established great voice who’s had much to do with centring the voice of Cephalonia.


For the curious, much occurring after the war is telescoped backwards into it though the Greek civil war is flagged too; and the timescale’s compressed – roughly 15 years. The novel itself jump-cuts particularly from the 1953 earthquake. Some characters endure altered fates. A foundling daughter morphs into a grandson, but we’re in the coda and it works. De Bernieres has certainly given his blessing. How does it work though on stage?


The tale of two bittersweet love-affairs – one quickly over just as it’s declared, the other lasting in an afterglow of decades – is told against Italian then German occupation. Joseph Long’s authoritative Dr Iannis is writing the history of the island and reluctantly warns his highly-educated medically-ambitious daughter Pelagia (Madison Clare) of trouble ahead.


With the Greeks refusing to capitulate to Italians and beating them till the Germans arrive, Iannis reminds Pelagia the Italians occupied Cephalonia from 1194-1797: the islanders speak Italian fluently, though won’t let on at first. And they’re far cannier than their occupiers at playing them.


Playing Pelagia back though is the dashing and decent Captain Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni), a gifted composer and mandolin-player who falls into the army as much as he falls in love with Pelagia; and like all Italians has no wish to occupy or bully. Indeed his sergeant, Ryan Donaldson’s heroic Carlo, is both ripe for joining the resistance and in love, as he realises with the fragile, sweet-natured Francesco (Fred Fergus). And love starts with a mouse. Animals blossom in the material Munro selects.


Pelagia though is promised to Mandras (Ashley Gayle) a baffled unlettered fisherman. His mother Drosoula, Eve Polycarpou, realizes the mismatch. As Mandras joins the army then the resistance Pelagia begins to realize there’s more to life and love.


Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is fluidly directed by Melly Still with evocative mandolin-centred music composed by Harry Blake with large washes and choral arrangements from Verdi and Puccini, as well as for instance Lili Marlene. Additional vocal improvisations though by Eve Polycarpou develops this in a cross-fertilisation of two cultures: it’s a miraculously haunting sound led by Polycarpou. Orchestral music’s discreetly projected in the sound design by Jon Nicholls which takes in gunshots, explosions and earthquake tremors.


The fluid set and costumes by Mayou Trikerioti features a vertically suspended beaten-copper sheet, where projection by Dom Baker etches the island’s shape, biting with a white line stencilled parachutes descending twice, a white rose of explosion. Even more there’s a flurry of umbrellas to denote seasons, haunting gauze over various actors in silent screams as they’re discovered frozen to death. The way props sweep in and are swept up in striking details like these, with lighting by Malcolm Rippeth integral to volume where a fast-moving work like this almost creates caverns and depths, taking in always lucid movement by George Siena. Fight direction by John Sandeman is called on continuously.


There’s two acts that steal the show. Luisa Guerreiro’s Goat using two wooden stumps to extend forearms is the most endearing goat we’ve seen on stage, more so than the poor pygmy goats in the eponymous Goats at the Royal Court in 2017. Guerreiro emits goat-speak, chews up paper and tattles on elegant fours with a face that launches a thousand aahs. And the dextrous upside-down hanging pine-martin Psipsina – Elizabeth Mary Williams – is no less engaging as a tamed animal. Evoking circus, they add to Munro’s sense of the animal kingdom as a redemptive gentling force and that element cuts through in this adaptation.


Polycarpou though centres the island itself. Whether in her vocal improvisations and other work, clearly filling areas the a capella-led forces don’t, she’s vocally breath-taking. Polycarpou utters laments and at one point a heart-wrenching scream so plangent it makes the theatre stop. It’s what makes theatre though, what fully justifies adaptations such as these. Polycarpou’s interactions with the cast balances Long’s rock-solid conscience of the island, another thoughtful take on the liberal avuncular. Stewart Scudamore’s older communist Velisarios is his neat vocal oppo, a dash of decency leavening clichés.


Around these two nodal points the excellent Mugnaioni as the eponymous hero (well his mandolin Antonia, which he plays engagingly) is both charming and agonised, principled and humorously grasping his moment. His movements border on the balletic. It’s as definitive a Corelli as we’re likely to get. Equally Clare conjures fierce intelligence, spirited resistance, tenderness and practical courage. Not to mention her own responsive wit when as Pelagia she deals with Mugnaioni’s playful captain. Her own movements contrast with his: a focused angularity. Clare’s both appealing and rightly appalled. Her desolation like the magnificent Polycarpou is rending.


Donaldson’s a fine Carlo, dashing and tender (to everyone including the man he loves, Fergus’s winsome, moving Francesco) whilst showing the resonant heroics that makes everyone follow him. Often Scottish actors represent regional or working-class characters in foreign-based productions; Donaldson though cuts through genre, towering (as Carlo must) over the cast.


Gayle’s initially sympathetic Mandras darkens as the war does, and though events transpose events backwards and compress his story, there’s enough fine crumbling: someone stripped of future, beliefs, love. We need contrasts like Kezrena James’ Lemoni (in a lemon dress) full of flirty life; Kate Spencer’s Gunter the German with a scratch of decency overridden by Nazification; Elliott Giuralarocca’s foul-mouthed Priest, and Graeme Dalling like all but six of the 15-strong cast, taking several roles.


This is a first-rate adaptation, compressing more than you’d guess into its pocket-epic scope. It never flags. Direction, script and above all ensemble render it easily one of the best of its kind. But there’s something special and extraordinary here too: a voice.