After training in the UK, Mayou Trikerioti returned to her native Greece to work on theatre and film projects before making her permanent base in London. As the British tour of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin opens, she tells Nick Smurthwaite about the challenges of recreating wartime Cephalonia on stage
The choice of Greek-born stage and costume designer Mayou Trikerioti to bring the best-selling novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – set on the Greek island of Cephalonia – to life on stage was always a no-brainer.
Dividing her time between Athens and London, Trikerioti is steeped in the culture and history of her homeland, though she has now adopted the UK as her base.
She says: “There are some things you can’t research, you just have to go with your gut feeling. I think I’m quite gutsy and instinctive in my approach to design, and I’m sure that has a lot to do with my Greek-ness.”
Louis de Bernières’ 1994 novel is a love story set against the background of the Italian and German occupation of Cephalonia during the Second World War. The main protagonists are the wounded Italian army captain Corelli and Pelagia, the headstrong daughter of a local physician.
In the pre-production period last year, producer Neil Laidlaw arranged a four-day field trip to Cephalonia for Trikerioti, director Melly Still and playwright Rona Munro, who adapted the book. “We spoke to elderly islanders who were young partisans at the time the novel is set,” says the designer. “It was incredibly helpful in bringing the story to life.”
Because of the multiplicity of settings and locations, Trikerioti says her designs are “evocative of the time and place”, rather than painstakingly realistic in their depiction. “We don’t spell everything out visually. We’re inviting the audience to use their imaginations,” she says. “Melly wanted the sets to have a kind of precariousness to reflect what was happening in Cephalonia at that time, and its history, so that was a challenge.”
The director explains this further: “I didn’t want to make it conceptual, I wanted an open playing space but with a sense of the island’s vulnerability, as well as its beauty and elegance. Historically and strategically, Cephalonia has always been extremely vulnerable, not just politically but because it is on a fault line and has been subject to earthquakes.”
Because Captain Corelli will be playing a number of different venues big and small until July, Trikerioti had to keep in mind the adaptability factor. She says: “I’m mindful of the different specifications of each venue – even though you can’t let that drive your design aesthetic. It’s really the production manager’s job to see that the design can be made to fit each theatre, not mine.”
What was your first non-theatre job?
Working in my parents’ bookshop.
What was your first professional theatre job?
Designing Silence and Violence by Torben Betts at the White Bear, London.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That a designer has to be a business person as well.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
The Czech designer Josef Svoboda, and the directors Stefanos Lazaridis and Lefteris Voyatzis.
If you hadn’t been a designer, what would you have been?
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
Born into a bookish Athens family – her mother Jenny Mastoraki is a poet and translator, her father a publisher and bookshop owner – Trikerioti claims that she had already decided she wanted to be a scenic designer by the age of four, following a backstage visit to the National Theatre of Greece.
She also decided at an early age that she wanted to study, and possibly work, in the UK. “I knew I wanted to live and work in London because I loved it the first time I came here,” she says. She did the theatre studies course at the University of Kent – “I wanted a dramaturgical training as well as theatre design” – and went on to do a master’s degree at Bristol Old Vic Theatre School.
Not long after graduating from Bristol, Trikerioti got a designing job in Athens, where there is a thriving theatre community, and decided to move back, staying for six years. “It became impossible to establish myself in both places at once,” she says. “In Athens, I was offered jobs that were above my level of experience, and therefore quite challenging.”
Working frequently at the National Theatre of Greece, Trikerioti became best known in Athens for working on contemporary plays by writers such as Enda Walsh, Martin McDonagh, Steven Berkoff and Harold Pinter.
Such was her rapid progress that in 2007, aged 30, she was chosen by the International Theatre Institute to represent Greece at the Prague Quadrennial, exhibiting, among other things, her designs for Sarah Kane’s 1998 play Crave. By this time, Trikerioti had also moved into designing for the film industry in Greece and briefly considered giving up theatre altogether to concentrate on films.
What changed her mind? “I missed working in the theatre too much. I think of theatre as my husband, while film is my lover. My work in film has fed into my work in the theatre. I want to bring the same authenticity to both.”
Trikerioti returned to London to live and work in 2008, renting a studio at the old Truman’s Brewery in Spitalfields. She says: “It was tough because nobody knew me any more and design is a very competitive world. I had to set about reinventing myself.”
For a while, she tried to keep up the film work in Greece, commuting between the two countries, as well as keeping a foot in both stage and movie camps. “In the end I decided to put the brakes on the film work because I felt I would never re-establish myself as a stage designer otherwise. The big break was getting a job at the Young Vic, designing three Beckett plays for director Finn Beames, as part of the Taking Part season. It got the ball rolling and allowed me the freedom to do other things.”
She still returns to Greece every year or so to do a play or a film. “It is very hard to say no to the best Greek directors,” she says. “I’ve been lucky enough to work with directors who trusted my instincts and allowed me a sense of freedom. It means a lot of juggling especially now that I am a mother. Luckily I’m a workaholic, my brain always needs to be doing things.”
Her daughter Alina is now seven, old enough to be aware of what her mum does and to take an interest in it. Has Trikerioti found it hard to combine parenting with her busy schedule?
“One of the reasons I cut down the film work was that it was extremely difficult for me to be away from Alina for two months at a time. There were times earlier on when I was afraid to admit I had a child, and there was a sense of guilt when you had to excuse yourself because you were late to pick her up, but I think it has got better in the last few years.
“Producers and directors have definitely become more understanding in recent years, and I’ve observed that working mothers are much more upfront about what they need to do. In most cases, the shame factor is a thing of the past.”
‘I’ve been lucky enough to work with directors who trusted my instincts and allowed me a sense of freedom’
Trikerioti prides herself on being able to adapt to any space and scale, from the 13,000-seater Epidaurus Theatre on the Peloponnese, where she dressed Lysistrata in 2014, to the 70-seat Tristan Bates Theatre in central London. She has also worked on community projects that engage with young people, both in Athens and London.
She is a founding member of the community arts project Change of Art, a London-based theatre collective formed in 2017 to honour the memory of the murdered MP Jo Cox. They stage a festival of performance in June every other year with a view to bringing together people of different backgrounds and faiths for a day of celebration. They are currently working on this year’s festival.
Is she concerned about the impact of Brexit on her workload? “I feel very calm about the whole thing. I have a settled status in the UK. My only worry is for working abroad and the piles of paperwork Brexit will generate.”
Born: Athens, 1976
Training: University of Kent; Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
Landmark productions: Crave, Theatro Kykladon, Athens (2003);The Caretaker, Aplo Theatro, Athens (2010); Macbeth, Garrick Theatre, London (2011); All Stones All Sides, Young Vic, London (2014-15); Lysistrata, Epidaurus Theatre, Greece (2014); The Soul of Wittgenstein, Omnibus Theatre, London (2018); Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, UK tour (2019)
Agent: Nigel Godfrey at Blue Box
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin is on tour until the end of June