Condensing Captain Corelli: Rona Munro on adapting Louis De Bernières’s novel for the stage

A scene from Captain Corelli's Mandolin PIC: Marc Brenner
A scene from Captain Corelli's Mandolin PIC: Marc Brenner
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When leading Scottish playwright Rona Munro was asked, back in 2017, whether she would be interested in writing a stage version of Louis De Bernières’s hugely popular 1994 novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, she had just two strong memories of the book she had read more than 20 years earlier. There was the haunting beauty of the setting, in a mountain village on the Greek island of Cephalonia during and after the Second World War; and there were the two poignant love stories at the heart of the novel and of the 2001 film – the story of Italian army captain Antonio Corelli and his love for Pelagia, the daughter of the village doctor who helps him recover from his war wounds, and the story of the book’s opening narrator, Carlo, who has lost his love Francesco in the war, and gives his life to save Corelli’s.

“So of course my first reaction was to rush off and read the book again,” says Munro, now happily settled in the Scottish Borders after many years in London, “and I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, what have I done?’ – because I had already more or less said yes, since I really wanted to work with the producer, Neil Laidlaw, and with Melly Still, the director for the project. The novel was just so much bigger than I remembered, with so much politics and history, and a vast number of characters. In my memory they had just all merged into the village background, which made you feel you had just been on a visit to Greece; but when I re-read the novel I realised that they all had stories, and characters, and a great deal more to them than that.

“What’s interesting, though, is that when it came to condensing this big novel into two or three hours of theatre, it was those same two features of it that finally seemed essential to capture: the wonderful sense of place, and the strength of those two love stories.”

The result is the new touring production – produced by London-based Scottish producer Neil Laidlaw, with Church & State Productions, The Rose Kingston and Birmingham Rep – that arrives at the King’s in Edinburgh on 18 June, and in Glasgow the week after. The production is directed by Olivier and Tony award-winner Melly Still, best known for her production of Coram Boy for the National Theatre in London and on Broadway; and with set and costume design by Greek designer Mayou Trikerioti, music by Harry Blake, and dance and movement by Greek choreographer and theatre-maker George Siena, the show brings together a creative team that Munro was delighted to work with.

“This is one of quite a few adaptations I’ve written recently,” says Munro, whose version of Rebus: The Long Shadows toured the UK last year, and who is currently working on this autumn’s Sell A Door-Perth Theatre co-production of a new touring version of Frankenstein, “and it’s also the third big commercial production I’ve been involved with. And I have to say that so far as commercial theatre is concerned, this has been my best experience yet. Neil is a great producer, who really seems to understand writers; and I was also looking for any opportunity to work again with Melly, after we collaborated on Watership Down at the Lyric Hammersmith, way back in 2006.”

Alongside her historic achievement in writing the huge James Plays trilogy, first seen at the Edinburgh Festival in 2014, Munro is best known as a feminist playwright, giving voice to powerful women’s stories in plays like her 1990 classic Bold Girls, and The Last Witch, revived by Firebrand and Pitlochry Festival Theatre last year. She is hugely excited to be working on a new version of Frankenstein which she hopes will give full weight to Mary Shelley’s astounding achievement as a professional writer, even though she wrote the novel when she was only 18. She has also enjoyed working on the many female characters in Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, giving them their full presence and agency as theatrical characters; and she is looking forward to next year’s Traverse production of her latest new play, Donny’s Brain.

For now, though, she is simply delighted to see Captain’s Corelli’s Mandolin on tour around the UK. “I know that the novel has been controversial in some quarters,” says Munro, “and that some people have taken real exception to its negative portrayal of the communist partisans who fought against the Nazis in the Greek islands. However, in the space of a stage play, there wasn’t really scope to explore the section of the book about the Greek civil war that followed the Second World War. What we’ve done is to try to make a play about how war takes people who think they are good people, and brutalises them, makes them do terrible things. The strength of the book is the way it tells a story, or a series of stories, about life and love and ordinary human longing against that terrible backdrop of war, and we have tried to reflect that.

“I’m also delighted with the way the elements of music and movement and design have come together in this production to help recreate that wonderful evocation of Cephalonia that is such an important part of the novel. Alex Mugnaioni, who’s playing Corelli, really had to learn to play the mandolin for this production, and he’s become very good at it! So yes, I think people who enjoyed the book, and remember it, will find that this show captures the same atmosphere and emotions; and even those meeting the characters for the first time will be able to enjoy the power of these human stories, played out against the backdrop of history, and in such a beautiful setting.” - Joyce McMillan

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, from 18-22 June, and Theatre Royal, Glasgow, from 25-29 June