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Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

by on 26 April 2019

Δύναμη από Σύγχυση

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin

adapted by Rona Munro from the novel by Louis de Bernieres,

Neil Laidlaw, RTK Productions, Church & State Productions and Birmingham Repertory Theatre at The Rose Theatre, Kingston until 12th May, then on tour until 29th June.

A review by Mark Aspen

War is a confusing thing, a messy thing. Many things happen, and for many motives and conflicts may not be confined to the battlefield.

Confusion and a mess of action open the Rose’s enthralling adaptation of de Bernieres’ Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. There is a contemplative flash-forward between two soldiers and then a whirlwind of movement, a confusion of characters, some who seem nether to look nor sound like the inhabitants of Cephalonia, where the play is set. The strong accents are those more from around the various parts of British Isles than those from the islands of the Ionian Sea. Actors double and treble, some play animals, while settings change across each other. There is the hustle and bustle of rural and maritime life, thrown into confusion during the attack by Mussolini’s forces in 1940, following Gen Metaxas’ declaration of no surrender on 28th October, Επέτειος του Όχι (the Day of “No”). All this commotion, however, sits within the seasonal enfolding of Cephalonian life and the ordinary complexities of its human relationship. Hence, director Melly Still creates a mood piece, which lasts most of the first half of the play, to set the scene.

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This mood is nevertheless set within the permanence of the island itself and the long continuing history of its peoples. That permanence is embodied in the two oldest characters, Dr Iannis, the local physician and herbalist, and Drosoula, an elderly widow. Iannis’ view of their world is rooted in history, in the Greek journey “from the mundane to the eternal”. After all, sitting in Homer’s wine-dark seas, between Cephalonia and the mainland is Ithica, the goal of Odysseus in his wanderings. So here is a place to be patient. Drosoula is the island’s matriarchal symbol and a staunch nationalist and acts as a foil to the communist sentiments expressed by others, as presage of the civil war yet to be endured.

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Joseph Long totally lives the part of the proud, erudite Dr Yannis, so full of wisdom and of love for his daughter Pelagia. His avuncular authority bristles like his splendid moustache. The poetry and the insight of this character are so accurately expressed by Long, that one can almost read his thoughts. Eve Polycarpou is the epitome of the Greek widow of yore, and as the only mother-tongue Greek speaker in the cast, she is steeped in the character of Drosoula. Moreover, Polycarpou has a beautifully resonant voice, a strong mezzo sung with her whole body: θαυμάσια !


The mood and the permanence is powerfully and imaginatively captured by renowned Greek designer Mayou Trikerioti. The overarching element is a massive pellucid foil rhombus the full height of the acting space, the island’s rockface, which forms the background for mesmerising light and video effects, by Malcolm Rippeth and Dom Baker. The predations of nature: sea, sun, earthquake; and of military: barbed wire, bullets, tanks, are here all writ symbolically in light.

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Another element that makes Captain Corelli’s Mandolin so watchable is the use of special effects, for example a shoal of silvery fish that quiver through the air, and yet another is the physical theatre that makes the piece so alive. An athletic chorus moves with balletic grace, or creates an idea or an artefact from their bodies. Soldiers’ backpacks become springboards to the next action.


Also part of the action is Jon Nicholls’ sound design, but as the very title suggests, this is a play about music. Harry Blake has composed a number of pieces for this production, some folksy, some powerful, some haunting, but Verdi and Puccini are very much in evidence. The Italian army seems to march not so much on its stomach as on its music. The operatic capabilities of our chorus are quite impressive too. In play full of ironies, the Italian squad even use operatic ironies. They march in with The Prince’s famous aria from Turandot and make much of the final sustained, “… vincerò! vincerò!”, but is it love that conquers or war?

But when Dr Iannis spiritedly stands up to the next wave of conquerors, the German invaders, the defectors sing Lauretta’s “O mio babbino caro”, for Iannis is now the “dear father”.

This is all clever stuff, but what of the plot? Well, there are plenty of sub-plots, but it is getting on for the interval before the main plot begins to develop and a narrative untangles itself from the business of life and war. This revolves around the ill-fated loves of Pelargia.

In the tight-knit community Pelargia’s first sweetheart is a local boy, the illiterate fisherman Mandras, Drosoula’s son. Pelargia does not requite the earnestness of his falling in love, so he goes to war, much to his mother’s dismay, to prove himself. However, war brutalises him, and eventually wrecks him physically. When he returns, ridden with every parasite known to entomology, her affections have completely cooled, “hollowed out … now love has dried up”. The chilliness is compounded by his not having answered any of her myriad letters (he cannot write!). The emotional journey of Mandras is a long one, but Ashley Gayle, in this role, does not deliver this length, nor the depth of the character.

Cor5Within the entwined confusions of the tousled first half, another sub-plot emerges, the friendship of two Italian soldiers, Carlo, increasingly disaffected with war, and his comrade Francesco, engaging played by Fred Fergus, a gentle easy-going man, who even befriends a mouse. They are sent, unknowingly to them as agents provocateurs, disguised as Greek soldiers (unconvincingly pantomimic in their ceremonial Evzone uniforms completed with pom-pom clogs!) and Francesco is killed. As Carlo cradles him in his arms, he realises that they were more than just brothers in arms. Carlo is thus set up to be the ardent symbol of the futility of war in the second half.

Then the second half comes and the main narrative emerges, when the eponymous Captain Corelli comes into Pelagia’s life. It is the Romeo and Juliet plot, as hearts reach to each other across the warring divide. Greek and Italy in the Second World War, though, far supersede any complexity of the Montagues and Capulets, and ramp up the complexities of falling in love for the hapless Pelagia.

Captain Corelli is a reluctant soldier, and would rather be playing his mandolin, making music not war. His billet is the requisitioned house of Dr Iannis where he at first treated with indifference by all. But he has winning ways, helped by his devotion to his music, manifest even in his men who keep fit by singing. Alex Mugnaioni is a twinkling eyed energetic Corelli, albeit with a more than a hint of an English officer and gentleman about him. Mugnaioni has learnt to play the mandolin by Sergi Vacca, and his wistful Vivaldi-esque pieces demonstrate a remarkable capability for the instrument. (Mugnaioni did however blot his copybook when, four weeks before opening night, he left the original highly valuable 1890 mandolin on Sidcup train, a Wildean mishap that proved to be quite a publicity boost.)

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Pelagia is a highly intelligent and knowledgably young lady, who has learnt the physician’s art, not only from her father, but also by using an inquiring mind, to gather knowledge of local herbs and of animals, even, when food is scarce, dissecting a chicken before it goes in the cooking pot. She is no only beautiful, but has the added bonus for Corelli of speaking Italian, which she does very forthrightly. Making a fresh debut in a major role, Madison Clare is captivating as Pelagia, absorbing her feisty character and travelling with all the triumphs and tribulations which fate has paved her road to love.

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Indeed true Capuletarian contrariness leads her to fall in love with Corelli, not that one could not see that coming an Adriatic’s width away. Dr Iannis at the end of an eloquent soliloquy on love sums it up, “love is a madness; that is its nature”.

In all its ironies, there is much to jerk the tears and lump the throat in this remarkably poetic piece of theatre. Perhaps the epitome of this is the episode that references the massacre of Acqui Division (on 26th September 1940, when 5,200 Italian soldiers who had refused to surrender to the German forces were put to death). Corelli and his platoon are lined up to be executed as renegades. They bravely face the firing squad, singing the humming chorus from Madama Butterfly as they are all shot.

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When Corelli is brought to Dr Ianiss’s surgery, he is discovered to have survived badly wounded. The strings of his mandolin are used to suture his wounds. He owes his life to Carlo, the same agonised spirit whom we saw as the symbol of war’s futility in the first half. Carlo had shielded Corelli with his own body in an act of sacrifice. His penultimate words are “keep the love alive … in perpetuity”. Ryan Donaldson’s depiction of the romantically redemptive and independently willed Carlo is powerfully inspired. However, why, amongst Still’s mishmash of accents does Donaldson keep his rich Ulster accent in this role? (Equally baffling is the casting of Kate Spencer as Günter, the Nazi officer at the massacre. A fine actress, she is acting her socks (jackboots?) off, a svelte and statuesque young lady, to portray a character based on General Lanz, a balding middle-aged Wehrmacht war-criminal.)

Many of the minor roles in this production really shine, Kerenza James as the sparky mischievous child, Lemoni, for example. But really outstanding are two actors who play the animals which form part of the Cephalonian household. In the hands (hooves?) of physical comedy actress, Luisa Guerreiro, the Goat really lives a one woman caprine Greek chorus, constantly silently commenting on the action and injecting much needed humorous relief.  Here is a goat with a catholically omnivorous appetite. I was quite disappointed when a hungry Italian soldier carried her off, “bella capra”, to eat! Equally fascinating is Elizabeth Mary Williams as Psipsina, a pine marten that is rescued from the barbed wire to become a family pet. Williams is lithe, vivacious and athletic as the inquisitive tiny rodent. Both Guerreiro and Williams must have spent hours studying these animals to get the nature of their movement and temperament to a tee.

A flashback between Carlo and Corelli parenthesises the flash-forward at the beginning, but the epic scale of this production does not allow an end. It moves on from WWII, to the Greek Civil War, to the Ionian earthquake of the 1950’s, to the later tourist invasion. This adaptation cannot release itself from the ambitious intricacies of the novel and, instead of extracting the quintessence of the story, continues, like a major symphony, to a number of grand finales. But, in the end, how many endings do we need?

Enfin, a baby found in the rubble of the earthquake becomes a symbol of hope, but in a play of multiple ironies this symbol dashes the hopes of the lovers. The infant, informally adopted by Perlagia, is seen as her own daughter by the returning Corelli, and what could have been is not.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin inverts the old adage: now, all’s unfair in love and war.

Mark Aspen
April 2019

Photography by Marc Brenner

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