Love in a time of war

The stage production of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin begins its UK tour this month, 25 years after the publication of the Louis de Bernières novel on which the show is based. Set on Cephalonia during the German/Italian World War Two occupation of the picturesque Greek island, the book tells the story of local woman Pelagia and her lover - the Italian captain, Antonio Corelli. 

“I think it’s a wonderful love story, and people always love a good love story,” says Rona Munro, who’s adapted the novel for the stage. “The book really evokes the landscape and culture of Greece, so I think that, particularly for people in the rest of Europe who love going to Greece, it encapsulates everything that we love about the country. But it’s also telling quite a difficult and potentially tragic story about some of the events of World War Two. Ultimately, though, the story comes out in a place of hope, without being too sentimental. I think that’s why it’s appealed to so many people for so long.”

Rona was thrilled to be approached by producer Neil Laidlaw and director Melly Still to adapt the novel: “The opportunity to work with Melly was a huge draw, as I’d worked with her on an adaptation of Watership Down a few years ago. Then I read Captain Corelli properly and really absorbed it. The scale of the book really caught me. 

“The elements of the story that are so difficult to adapt for stage, which are perhaps the more violent parts, was part of the appeal of taking on the challenge. Melly is a director who does the most extraordinary things with actors, movement and music. We’ve just got the most wonderful music from composer Harry Blake as well. All I have to do is put in a very simple stage direction like, ‘At this point, 40 German Panzers appear over the ridge and obliterate the Greek army’, and then that goes over to Melly. She always does something incredible that allows the audience to experience scenes that many would think couldn’t be done justice to on stage.”

Rona believes the story still has resonances today: ‘I think the themes of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin definitely apply to the concerns of 2019. A peaceful, idyllic community, albeit with its flaws, is exposed to the very worst of human nature. This community is also exposed to the very, very best of human nature. It’s the interplay between the best and the worst that humans are capable of which I think is so relevant to this point in history.”

So how does Rona feel the climate for UK playwrights has changed during the course of her extensive career?

“I’m a Scottish playwright, and I would actually say that the climate for playwrights is different north and south of the border. North of the border, what’s been really interesting is the upsurge in new writing by Scottish playwrights; writing that’s found an audience on a large scale. I think this new situation is also quite fragile, though, and I think there’s a danger that it will evaporate again. 

“Elsewhere in the UK, I think the industry has become increasingly risk-averse to new work on a large scale. For example, something like an adaptation of a very famous novel, which is obviously a wonderful project to work on, is a safe option with an existing market, whereas a new play, by whoever, is less of a safe bet. I think the route to the larger venues for contemporary playwrights with their original work is quite difficult, which I think is a shame because theatre is one of the most exciting artforms around.’

Rona’s extensive CV includes working with Ian Rankin to put Rebus: Long Shadows on stage. The show premiered at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre, and the venue has also co-produced Captain Corelli’s Mandolin. 

“While working with them repeatedly has not been decided by me, I think The REP was very much on the front foot with Rebus and so was very happy to be involved when approached about Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, which is wonderful. I think what’s great about Birmingham Rep over the last few years is that they’ve built up an amazingly diverse programme of theatre. Rebus and Corelli are quite different! Looking at the work they’ve initiated themselves, both on the big stage and the smaller stage, I think one of the things they’ve done is produce a really exciting programme, so there’s always room for a bit of everything in it.”

Alongside theatre adaptations like Corelli and her own plays, Rona has also written for Doctor Who, both the 20th century series and the 21st century reboot. She has some interesting theories as to why her writing repertoire includes so many different genres: “I think it’s partly because of the typical writer’s terror that if I don’t say yes to everything, I’ll probably starve! Anytime anyone comes to me with a project, I’m not going to say no - I’ve got bills to pay! But mainly because I’ve been around for a number of years now, I’m lucky enough to be able to pick and choose the stuff I’ll really enjoy. I think the reason I’ve worked with so many different genres is simply because I enjoy so many different things, so sci-fi is definitely up there with doing something like The James Plays. I love a diverse range of theatre!”

So what’s been the highlight of her career up to this point?

“The James Plays, for sure. They were commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland and ended up being a co-production with Edinburgh International Festival and the National Theatre of Great Britain. They were a trilogy of history plays about the three Stewart Kings, James I, James II and James III. They were rehearsed and produced at the same time, which we discovered no one had actually ever done before. People have done trilogies where they do one, then the next the year after and so on, but we were just plonking them all out there at the same time, working with one ensemble of actors from March to October. It was just huge and seemingly impossible to do, yet we managed it. I think the scale of the project and working with that amazing group of people was just the best experience I’ve ever had.

“I’m trying to get another James Play out there at the moment. Then I’m doing a wee bit of telly and film and a couple more theatre projects. I’m doing more authored pieces for the stage, rather than adaptations, which is actually quite exciting - it’s really nice to shift from one to the other. They work different sets of writing muscles!”

Rona is confident that Captain Corelli’s Mandolin will be a terrific production, and has some final summarising words to encourage Birmingham theatre-goers to get along to the show: “What audiences are going to see is 15 actors creating the most amazing, exciting, terrifying, heart-wrenching spectacle that they could possibly imagine. I’ve been in the rehearsal room, and they really are doing the most extraordinary things. You will definitely have the most incredible emotional experience if you get a ticket!”

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin shows at Birmingham Repertory Theatre from Wednesday 29 May to Saturday 15 June.

By Lauren Cole