It's 1920 and a young French journalist is returning from military service in Syria. As he approaches the village where his grandmother lives, and where he will spend his summer, he spots a young girl taking the shade beneath an apple tree. He is entranced by her beauty. He approaches and after a short while unties her blonde hair so that it falls over her blouse. He tells her she is ‘eternal youth, eternal springtime… a fairy princess'.
The story of Jean-Jacques Bernard's play of 1922 is classically simple, akin to Chekhov or Thomas Hardy, as an educated and ambitious young man quietly enraptures an innocent country girl. Soon however the man decides it is only a summer dalliance, though to her it means somewhat more. With poignant grace the gulf between their temperaments and expectations is slowly revealed.
Primavera's exquisite production, the first of this work in the UK for many years, captures the spirit of disconnected longing at the drama's heart. Hannah Murray is outstanding as the titular Martine, whose innocence and depth of feeling beguile and provoke those around her. Barnaby Sax, as the journalist Julien, is an intelligent and discrete foil, and there's further smart support from Leila Crerar as his old flame, Susan Penhaligon as his measured grandmother and particularly by Chris Porter as Martine's resentful village suitor.
Allied to director Tom Littler's nuanced direction and Max Pappenheim's delicate score, the cosy Finborough theatre is made to seem the perfect venue for this intimate story. When a gesture as simple as a character placing a hand on another shoulder seems hauntingly bleak, it's a clear indication of how closely storytellers and story have dovetailed.
Though never mentioned directly, the long shadow of the Great War seems to marinate the story's disturbed pastoral. The opening scene particularly reminded me of Paul Fussell's suggestion (from The Great War and Modern Memory) that the ‘British understanding of 'Et in Arcadia Ego' was never far away in depictions of the war, as he sardonically noted ‘blondeness meant special beauty and value… those who found beauty even in German corpses tended to find it in blond ones'.
For Fussell modernism, particularly the concept of irony, sprung from the trenches, where the gap between enduring myths and the horror of mechanised warfare, seemed too great to be rationally comprehended. When Julien mistakes a normal girl for his fairy princess, Bernard's irony seems to be carry this understanding home. Neither his work, nor Fowles 1985 translation, have been wearied by age.