The talking-point is, of course, the use of rod puppets. These are both the village characters who surround the principal characters of Louis de Bernières’ novel and their alter-egos, often with both the live actors and their small-scale equivalents on stage at the same time. The manipulation of the puppets by ten black-clad operators is excellent; the audience vote definitely went to the tail-wagging, finger-biting goat.
As Pelagia, the doctor’s daughter with her sights set on a medical career but whose life is thrown into emotional turmoil first by her girlish romance with a fisherman and then by a more considered slow-burning relationship with an officer from the invading army, Natalie Kakhidze gives a finely wrought performance. She’s utterly credible both as a teenager and as an okder, sadder, wiser woman and her English is impeccable.
Maran himself plays Dr Iannis, first seen as he shares his hopes and his fears sitting by his wife’s grave. As the shadow of impending invasion – first by Mussolini’s Italians and later by Hitler’s Germans – darkens over his Greek seaside village, we are introduced to the puppets, processing to the church to pray that calamity may be averted. Levan Tsuladze’s direction and design balance straightforward dialogue with visual elements throughout.
The two candidates for Pelagia’s love are played by Tony Casement in the tile role and Gus Gallagher as Mandras, the fisherman who becomes a partisan fighter and then a communist commissar. Both give committed performances with Casement milking the humour in his part as the opera-loving soldier faces the realities of war and Gallagher developing the bitterness which turns a simple lad into a ruthless bully. Roger Delves-Broughton is the Briish SAS man whose intervention becomes so crucial.
Set pieces such as the sullen line-up of villagers watching the Italian invasion or the German army’s massacre of the Italian soldiers after Italy had quit the conflict are difficult to stage. This is where the puppets come into their own. They are beautifully detailed, but perhaps needed to be larger for their subtleties to be appreciated in an auditorium the size of the Mercury. De Bernières was in the audience at the performance I attended to place his seal of approval on this adaptation of his story.