Cameron Mackintosh's production of Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg's Martin Guerre opened in the West End in July 1996. It didn't really work, so they closed it, tweaked it extensively and opened it again that November. This was, it was generally agreed, a distinct improvement on mark 1, but still no great shakes – c'est la Guerre, was the broad opinion, mais ce n'est pas magnifique. Now the authors of Les Misérables and Miss Saigon have declared that they never envisaged this show as a blockbuster anyway, have rewritten it almost entirely as a medium-scale affair – cast of twenty-three, ten musicians – and unveiled it once more.
This review must now bifurcate, evaluating what might (in acknowledgement of Daniel Vigne's 1982 film treatment of the same sixteenth-century true story) be called the return of the return (of the return) of Martin Guerre both in comparison to its previous incarnations and as a show in its own right. On the first count, I am at a disadvantage, having seen neither earlier version. It is plain, however, that criticisms about narrative clarity have been taken strongly to heart: the show now opens with a battlefield scene in which Martin speaks to his comrade-in-arms Arnaud du Thil of his youth in the village of Artigat and his unconsummated marriage to the young Bertrande, and we see these events played out in flashback. Consequently, it is clear that Arnaud's later arrival in Artigat is undertaken in good faith to deliver Martin's apparent last words to Bertrande; the villagers, however, desire him to be Martin himself, and he and Bertrande ultimately acquiesce in this communal delusion. The central triangular story of love and honour emerges clearly as, by almost all accounts, it had not done hitherto. The larger dimension of the evils of religious sectarianism (Martin and Arnaud meet in religious wars; Artigat's tiny Protestant community remains clandestine in the face of priestly despotism), though, continues to entangle this core narrative rather than imbuing it with historical grandeur.
Admired director-choreographer team Connall Morrison and David Bolger animate events well; John Napier's design is simple and versatile without veering into minimalism; and the central trio of roles are sung strongly by Matthew Cammelle (Arnaud), Stephen Weller (Martin) and, in the vanguard as always, Joanna Riding as Bertrande. However, I cannot tell a lie: the whole thing seems simply ludicrous. Boublil's new lyrics may have been largely written straight into English rather than being translated by Stephen Clark, but they are trite and predictable; the only occasions on which I failed to spot a rhyme coming half a couplet away were when no rhyme came at all. Schönberg's score is big on majesty, but light on memorable tunes – perhaps one and a half in the entire show. As Arnaud's trial and imprisonment become the focus of religious strife in Artigat and Papist vigilantes dismember a scarecrow... as Martin once again sacrifices Bertrande, only to find Arnaud ready to die for his comrade... the sneerer in me could not help but recall Wilde's remark about the death of Little Nell: one would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh. Many musicals, of course, have insubstantial plots, but few pretend to such grandiosity. Call me contemptuous and cynical if you will, but do not call me to the next revision of Martin Guerre. Boublil and Schönberg have had their three strikes.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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