Firstly a confession; I actually enjoyed Les Miss and Miss Saigon, and also thought a previous West End version of Martin Guerre wasn’t too bad either (but I was a teenager then!). So I must have a soft spot for grand, sweeping, lush scored musicals, which are dreadfully unfashionable and sniggered at by many intellectual theatre types (however, I don’t actually have to watch them very often). I also have a huge love for the Watermill Theatre near Newbury, one of the most beautiful theatres in England. It is sat next to a river and adjacent to a stunning nature reserve and a pretty, tiny village, so the setting is pretty ideal (even for a born and bred city boy without a particular love for the countryside).
So arriving for a new production of Martin Guerre at the theatre (in a taxi from Newbury, it is impossible to visit by bus or train alone), I had high hopes, which were also bolstered to a couple of positive reviews I had read. So by now you know that it had to disappoint, and it did. It is the story is of a 16th Century French peasant who flees his new wife (marriage unconsummated) and cruel village, staying away for 7 years before returning to his old home. In the meantime his friend from the army visits the village in order to tell them of Martin’s supposed death in the wars, but is mistaken for him and is eagerly accepted by the villages (and indeed Mrs Guerre). The background to this is religious strife between the Catholic Villagers and local Protestants (and indeed Catholics and Protestants generally), whom the fake Martin eventually joins, causing him to be rejected as an impostor by the Catholic village who so readily accepted him when he shared their faith. Inter Christian hatred doesn’t exactly seem like the hot topic of our time, and it fails to say much about religious fundamentalism beyond ‘it’s bad’.
Most importantly the material and the production are not quite right for each other. The Watermill is a tiny space, so directors’ have to fit their work onto a much smaller canvass than at most other regional theatres, so directors like John Doyle have brought the theatre to our attention with excellent actor/musician productions, where the cast are also the band. Doyle in particular has managed to strip back Sondheim’s work to its emotional core, which works perfectly with the works of the worlds most intelligent and greatest living composer of musicals. Unfortunately director Craig Revel Horwood has done the same with Martin Guerre, Boublil and Schonberg’s 1996 West End musical (their latest, The Pirate Queen, has just tanked on Broadway). But Martin Guerre is not a show which can be striped back, the composers have a very set style and tinkering with the storyline and getting rid of seemingly extraneous dialogue is not wise. They are the masters of the lush, pop-ish, romantic musical, not of emotional truth and revelations like Sondheim. You need the finery and big cast for their work to feel complete. So in this production the story really seems truncated, and the second act in particular descends into melodrama with one revelation after another.
I think Revel Horwood has actually done a good job of the direction and choreography (as opposed to the adaptation), and this is certainly not an awful production. The cast of 12 (as opposed to 30 or more in the West End) all do well, but Andrew Bevis as Martin and Ben Goddard as Arnaud the impostor Martin, both seem a tad camp. Kelly O’Leary is sympathetic as Mrs Guerre and Michael Howcroft making a particular impression as the Catholic Priest and later the Judge.
At just over 2 hours Martin Guerre is a roller coaster of emotions and plot, with all the usual variety from the composers (the bawdy number, the love duet, the slightly homoerotic male duet, the big sweeping company numbers etc), which includes some memorable songs and good performances. It was very ambitious of Revel Horwood to do such a seemingly large scale musical in such a tiny space, he actually couldn’t have made it any bigger if he’d wanted too. If this does come to the West End, some of the physical staging problems could possibly be sorted out, and at the right price would be worth seeing for those of the Les Miserables inclination.