Melissa Blease reviews Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, on at Theatre Royal Bath until 18 May

I’m one of the very few people who haven’t read Louis de Bernières’ sprawling historical novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, published in 1994, reprinted 40-plus times, translated into 21 languages and still remains a fixture in the mass-market fiction charts. I haven’t seen John Madden’s 2001 film adaptation either, which stars Nicolas Cage, Penelope Cruz and John Hurt, and which was responsible for increasing Cephalonia’s tourist footfall by 500% in 2002 alone. Heck, I can’t even recall miming the playing of an imaginary mandolin in a game of charades while my team mates repeatedly shouted out the word ‘banjo!’ Am I somehow strangely immune to Corellimania? Not any more…

Given my lack of experience, I can’t say whether or not Rona Munro’s stage adaptation of Bernières’ enduringly popular tale of love across the barricades in Second World War Greece, directed by Melly Still, remains faithful to the original story. What I can say for sure, though, is that it’s an enthralling spectacle from start to finish: elegantly imaginative, emotionally captivating, viscerally physical and, at times, almost magical in character. 

Dr Iannis (Joseph Long) – an amiable man with a deep intellect and a high emotional IQ – lives with his equally likeable, clever daughter Pelagia (Madison Clare) in a little house on their island idyll. When German and Italian troops are posted to the island, their peaceful lifestyle is shattered forever. Pelagia is sort of ensconced in a romance with Mandras (Ashley Gale) – an already mismatched and ultimately doomed coupling. Enter Antonio Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni): an effortlessly charming Italian captain with a highly cultured, sensitive disposition… and who soon develops feelings for Pelagia that turn out to be mutual, despite the fact that their relationship could firmly dump them both in ‘traitor’ territory. 

Long, Clare and Mugnaioni keep all three points of their intrinsically tangled triangle sharply affiliated despite the grave and constant threats. Of the four main characters, it is perhaps Gale, as Pelagia’s lover-not-to-be, who gets more than a little lost along the way; there’s so much going on, both on stage and within the storyline, that he’s almost an apparition, or a portent of impending doom, than a viable love interest.

But there’s much, much more to this intricate, meandering tale than romance (or not): there’s war, and politics, and multiple points of view. There’s pain, and tenderness, and tragedy, and triumph. There’s laughter, and gunfire, and sunshine, and an earthquake (yes, an earthquake; as if an invasion isn’t enough for the islanders to endure, natural disaster shakes the lives of those who escaped the bombs).

There are animals in the mix too – a humourous bleating goat/family pet (good work, Luisa Guerreiro!), a pine marten (“a funny kind of cat”); iridescent fish leaping across waves; and Mario the mouse: a soldier’s best friend. And there’s music: Verdi arias sung by Corelli’s soldiers to a mandolin accompaniment; a mother’s agonised wail on the death of her son that segues into a haunting melody.

The whole subtle extravaganza takes place against the backdrop of Mayou Trikerioti’s ingeniously beautiful set, which is bought to life by Malcolm Rippeth’s lighting designs: huge sheets of jagged metal sheets depict changing tides, or the blinding light of a firing squad, or the brutality of a battle ground, while sound designer Jon Nicholls’ evocation of gunfire, falling bombs and the all-consuming chaos of an earthquake give key moments in the drama a literality that’s as disquieting as it is uplifting.

Intense yet whimsical, inventive and thoroughly immersive, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin (yup, I’ve read most of the book now) explores the futilities of war, the ambiguous nature of historical fact and multiple variations on the theme of love – and Munro’s stage adaptation delivers fresh, intelligent perspective on all three controvertible themes. 

According to Wikipedia, the notes played on a mandolin decay to silence faster than those from any other string instrument. This production, however, will resonate in your consciousness long after Captain Corelli strums his final chord.

Main image: Alex Mugnaioni as Captain Corelli and Madison Clare as Pelagia in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. Credit: Marc Brenner