Spanning five decades, Louis de Bernières’s sweeping Greek epic, Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is not the most obvious candidate for a stage adaptation. The original text’s emotional depth, painstaking detail, near-poetic prose and lengthy descriptions don’t lend themselves to the immediacy and linear structure of theatre. 

So I thought – unkindly (having for these very reasons and more, stubbornly avoided the film adaptation) – ready to latch on to every perceived flaw, inconsistency or, slightest deviation from de Bernières multi-layered romance. 

Set against the backdrop of WWII on the island of Cephalonia, it charts the upturned lives of villagers as they wrangle to co-exist with garrisoned soldiers during the Italian-German occupation. Against all odds – and despite her dogged efforts to stifle her feelings – love blossoms between spirited islander Pegalia and the unit’s charming captain, Antonio Corelli, an aspiring musician and accidental pawn in Mussolini’s abject war. 

Against all odds and despite my dogged efforts to pick it apart, this faithful adaptation came up trumps. This is thanks in no small part to the truly innovative, and often mesmerising,  set design, with at its heart jagged sheets of metal onto which abstract projections – from the faint outlines of a map to rivers of blood – add visual depth and poignancy to an increasingly harrowing plot. 

The heady series of song sequences and choreographed montages (virtually every interaction has a subtle but unmistakable balletic quality) too help to convey a strong sense of place and time even as the play fast-forwards through history or skips ahead decades – from the devastation of post-war Greece to a beachside bar in the 1990s. 

Every last detail has been carefully thought-out in this precise production, down to the ‘animals’ inhabiting the island, especially Pelegia’s pet billy goat, played with bafflingly lifelike physicality and cheek by Luisa Guerreiro. 

Captain Corelli (Alex Mugnaioni) and Pegalia (Madison Clare)’s star-crossed affair can feel a tad rushed at times, relegated to the sidelines by the need to press on with the story and pack in as much of de Bernières’s 50-year saga as possible. But this in no way diminishes the intensity and sheer erotic power of the pair’s performance. A brilliant masterclass in stage adaptation.

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin runs at the Theatre Royal Bath until Saturday, May 18.