King’s Theatre, Edinburgh
Life during wartime is tough in Cephalonia, the idyllic Greek island that becomes both safehouse and arena for Louis de Bernieres' phenomenally successful novel. Now a quarter of a century old, and with only a schmaltzy film version to come out of it, Bernieres’ story is adapted here for the stage by Rona Munro. The allure of music is at the heart of its love across the barricades yarn concerning doctor's daughter Pelagia and the eponymous Corelli, who heads up occupying Italian forces with an urbane reluctance and an artistic sensibility that reaches out beyond the uniform.
With Cephalonia sheltered from the blast of war, Pelagia tends to her goats, while her widowed father Iannis pees on the plants inbetween tending to the poorly. Once the Italian army, move in, alas, with Pelagia’s new squeeze Mandras already a casualty of one form or another, things can only get worse.
Played out against Mayou Trikerioti’s monumental set dominated by a giant metal sheet onto which are projected the horrors of war, Melly Still’s touring production that originated at the Rose Theatre, Kingston is an expansive and impressionistic affair. Its little choreographic flourishes running alongside Harry Blake’s score give it an epic feel.
In terms of narrative thrust, its generational sprawl possesses the feel of a state of the nation mini-series, with the framing device of Corelli’s comrade Carlo’s letter lending a poignancy to proceedings. Alex Mugnaioni’s Corelli makes for a louche interloper, but it is Madison Clare’s vivid presence as Pelagia who carries the fifteen-strong ensemble throughout.
At times Cephalonia resembles Shakespeare's stormy island in The Tempest, with Iannis a foppish Prospero figure, Pelagia a more Street-smart Miranda and Corelli a castaway charmer with musical magic at his fingertips to soothe even the Germans' fevered brow, for a while, at least.
It is another island-based Shakespeare play, however, that gives Bernieres’ story its essence. As Pelagia and Corelli make belated music of their own, one can’t help but will them to play on, give them excess of it, however long it takes.
The Herald, June 19th 2019