For Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Cameron Mackintosh, Martin Guerre is a tale of perseverance. The artistic struggle to get the show firing on all cylinders is itself a plot worthy of a grandiose musical. After 700 performances at the Prince Edward Theatre, the show closed. The originators were already at work on re-focusing the show, with the third incarnation of Martin Guerre (the second surfaced three months after opening) destined for a premiere not in the West End but at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
Little remains of the previous production. New songs, re-written lyrics, re-orchestration, a rougher French terrain courtesy of designer John Napier and new choreography from the Abbey Theatre's David Bolger. Also from the Abbey comes Irish director Conall Morrison, who plans to steer Martin Guerre in the right direction.
Morrison was head-hunted by the powerful trio of Boublil, Schonberg and Mackintosh after they became aware of Morrison's critically acclaimed Tarry Flynn, a portrait of Irish rural life in the 1930s, which ran at the Abbey and for limited performances at the Royal National Theatre. They attended a performance.
'The funny thing is', Morrison told me between technical rehearsals for Martin Guerre, 'the play was set in Monaghan and the Irish accent was as thick as turf. Cameron only understood about 80%, Alain 70% and Claude-Michel 20%. But they enjoyed the use of music and the visual story telling.'
Which led to a series of conversations during which both sides sized each other up. 'When I realised,' Morrison continued, 'that we would be truly collaborating and they weren't just looking for some gun to hire to get a few noises, dances and imagery together, I knew that it was something that could really work.'
Morrison sees no problems here for a director. 'There are just cracking opportunities. It can be potentially intimidating, but the degree of difficulty is directly connected to the capacity of it all to look bloody excellent. It's great,' he says, 'it's a director's play pen, a director's bouncy castle.'
The intention with the new production is to tell the tale with more clarity than was previously the case. 'We've had the chance to make sure that all the characters are as fleshed out as they can be and that we know exactly what the crucial relationships and twists and turns are. We've just made sure that we've got the story completely focused, that everything feeds into the story.'
The backdrop to the story of love, mistaken identity and imposture is a France being torn apart by religious conflict. There is a chance that this could lead to a musical of two very disparate pieces. 'In this case, for my money anyway, it's all completely integrated,' Morrison confidently claims. 'We explore the capacity for dangerous zealotry on both sides and how that can really screw up the capacity of the central quartet to define themselves.'
So what is there for the discerning theatre patron to enjoy about Martin Guerre third time out? 'I think those that have seen the show before are going to be pleasantly surprised - it's completely bloody new. You will love its visual gutsiness, you'll love the fact that the story is now beautifully streamlined so that it travels like a high speed train that's heading towards a wall.'
This 'visual gutsiness' is in no small part due to John Napier's new set design, as Morrison recognises. 'The last version, to my mind, was a bit too pleasant,' he says. 'In many ways, we've created a harsh environment but one which also has the capacity at various moments in which to find great joy, great relief and great beauty. John's done some wonderful, muscular stuff. There's quite a lot of sneaky technology ticking away behind it all, but hopefully the effect is going to be one of a very raw, primitive potency.'
Morrison's regular collaborator, choreographer David Bolger, is also working hard to gather the various strands together. 'David's determination is to make all the performers find a personal language that is right for their character, right for the play, right for the period and right for the energies that we're trying to explore and create.'
So how does Morrison think the future looks for Martin Guerre after this major overhaul? 'I don't think it's ever going to be playing huge stadiums like Les Miserables or Miss Saigon can because it's simply not of that scale. I am quietly confident that all the various collaborators, writers and orchestrators have, I think, tapped into its heart properly and I think it's going to earn its way. Very much as an equal partner with Les Mis and Miss Saigon but very much a piece which has its own separate identity. Its difference is its quality, its difference is its identifying mark. And it's a good mark. I think it's going to have a life, certainly.'
If Morrison is right, it looks as if the genuine Martin Guerre has, at long last, shown up.
For more information on Martin Guerre, check out the previous What s On Stage news story and read our review of the reborn musical.