Review - Captain Corelli's Mandolin at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Our critics rating: 
Date: 
Thursday, 11 July, 2019
Review by: 

The journey of stories from screen to stage are now well-travelled, especially in musicals, with many (if not most) new musicals originating in popular film titles from the back catalogue - Moulin Rouge is just the latest about to open on Broadway, joining a season that saw King Kong and Beetlejuice added to the roster.

On the plays front, stories adapted from page to stage are equally common: a stage version of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird is currently one of the most successful new plays on Broadway in years, while at home Small Island, Andrea Levy's story of first-generation Jamaican immigrants to Britain, is currently a deserved hit at the National.

This preamble is by way of saying that adaptation can be a legitimate path for reinventing stories for a theatrical audience. But it needs to add something meaningful to the story and its telling to make it come alive on the stage.

Louis de Bernières's now-beloved 1994 novel Captain Corelli's Mandolin arrives on the stage of the West End's Harold Pinter Theatre with more of a thud than the sweet music suggested by its title. It has come there as a summer filler, wedged into a nine-week slot before the arrival of Ian McKellen in a solo show in September, but it's less theatrically filling than it seeks to be.

This is not for a lack of trying: director Melly Still's production, originally seen at Leicester's Curve, Birmingham Rep and Kingston's Rose theatres earlier this year, is certainly busy. And well-populated: a cast of fifteen bring it to life with a lot of physical theatre acting (particularly from two actors charged with playing a pet goat and pine marten).

But it also feels slightly threadbare: there's the regulation rough-theatre step ladder on stage, but Mayou Trikerioti's scenery otherwise comprises a collection of desultory herb bushes (which are regularly watered by Dr Iannis relieving himself upon them).

Theatrical effects are confined instead to a large, rippled corrugated metal screen that hangs above the stage, upon which Dom Baker's projections frequently add colour and variety (and otherwise unshowable events like the post-war earthquake that hit the island).

Rona Munro's adaptation, too, feels at once episodic and inevitably compressed. We don't actually meet Captain Corelli himself until the end of a plodding first act, so there's a lot of scene-setting about the occupation of the Greek island of Cephalonia, as Italy takes it over.

The domestic landscape and repercussions develop in the second act, as one of the invading soldiers - the sensitive aspiring musician Captain Corelli - falls in love with Pelagia, the daughter of his host Dr Iannis. The stakes are heightened when the island is in turn invaded by Germany.

But there's an over-arching earnestness to the storytelling that left me largely unmoved and uninvolved. Faithful readers who just want to be reminded of a well-loved book may find more nourishment.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin is at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 31st August.

Captain Corelli's Mandolin tickets are available now. 

Photo credit: Marc Brenner

Looking for the best seats...