WAR – what is it good for? Absolutely nothing, came the answer from the anti-war movement of the 1960s; and although that simple answer has sadly never told the whole truth, these two powerful shows in Edinburgh this week both throw a harsh light on the downside of war, on how it steals young lives, destroys peaceful communities, and –sometimes – brings love, only to snatch it away again.
Louis de Bernieres’s best-selling 1994 novel, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – now adapted for the stage by leading Scottish playwright Rona Munro, and produced by Neil Laidlaw with a consortium of English theatres – is set during and after the Second World War on the beautiful Greek island of Cephalonia, a place so far from the font lines of conflict that it might reasonably have hoped to be left in peace.
No such luck, though; and when Italian troops are billeted on the island, everything begins to change in the lives of the island doctor, Iannis, and his beautiful and gifted daughter Pelagia, who has recently become engaged to a local fisherman, Mandras. In Melly Still’s atmospheric production, the story of Pelagia’s growing love for the mandolin-playing Italian Captain, Antonio Corelli, is told by Corelli’s loyal sergeant, Carlo, who has himself lost his true love Francesco in the war; and the looping pattern of narrative and flashback through which his story emerges is sometimes a little hard to follow, in a first act during which Madison Claire, as Pelagia, often mumbles away her lines as if she could barely be bothered to utter them.
Once she falls in love with Corelli, though, the whole dynamic of the story becomes clearer and more energised. This is a love worth raising her voice for, glowing for, living for; and as the gleaming crumpled metal sky of Mayou Trikerioti’s set becomes ever more a screen on which to project images of a war hurtling to its conclusion – only to be replaced by another, the Greek Civil War – the drama begins to achieve a truly memorable, poignant intensity. Alex Mugnaioni delivers a fine, dreamy performance as the musician-soldier Corelli, playing the mandolin like an angel; and with impressive support from Ryan Donaldson as Carlo, Joseph Long as Dr Iannis, and Eve Polycarpou as Mandras’s mother Drosoula, the story moves powerfully through the war’s devastating end, and the earthquake that shattered Cephalonia soon after, to a place of peace where – even in old age – Pelagia and Corelli may finally enjoy some of the sweetness that was so cruelly wrenched from them, 40 years before.
If Captain Corelli’s Mandolin takes a while to gain momentum, though, the 50th anniversary touring production of Hair, now at the Playhouse, hardly seems concerned with its storyline at all, until its electrifying finale. Set on a dazzling but brutally uninformative set of multi-coloured streamers surrounding the main space of a 1960s New York squat, the musical is supposed to tell the story of a group of hippies, known as The Tribe, who are fiercely opposed to the war in Vietnam, and of the struggle of one its members, Claude, who –when he receives his draft card – feels torn between new hippy values and old-fashioned patriotism.
In this version, though, the cast spend so much of their time singing their way through a score of no fewer than 45 songs, and receive so little help from the set and production in evoking the historical context of their rebellion, that much of their energy seems to go for nothing.
The production completely bottles the show’s famous nude sequences, which is perhaps just as well, since it has failed to evoke the context that once gave meaning to the performers’ nakedness; and only in the last 15 minutes, when the action moves down to the local army office, and the company belt out a spine-tingling version of Let The Sunshine In, do we finally catch a glimpse of what Hair was all about, half a century ago, and why it mattered so much.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, today [22 June] and at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, from 25-29 June. Hair at the Playhouse is at Edinburgh, today, and at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, from 7-10 August.