The impostor who takes the identity of another man – and his place in his wife’s bed – sounds like the stuff of legends. But Martin Guerre is based on a real court case tried in France in 1560. Boublil and Schönberg’s fleshing out of the bare facts resembles a tabloid story – or even a Jerry Springer scenario – although presumably nowadays, DNA testing could detract from the tension!
Les Mis aficionados might wonder how this epic musical can work in an intimate auditorium with actor/musicians replacing the orchestra. It’s hard to imagine a more effective staging or orchestration than Craig Revel Horwood’s fast-moving punchy production and Sarah Travis’ stunning arrangements for just 12 astonishingly versatile performers.
And thanks to Diego Pitarch’s artful use of the tiny Watermill stage, there’s a terrific sense of claustrophobia about this Pyrenean village that looks like a Brueghel painting, peopled by diehard bigots determined to keep the land Catholic by inheritance (and out of Protestant hands), even if it means forced marriages.
That’s the fate of Bertrande, desirable both for her beauty and her land, but not to her unwilling husband, the frankly weedy Martin Guerre. She’d gladly endure him, if only to stop the villagers’ cruel gossiping when there’s no heir, but Martin can’t bear to touch her. So he flees to the wars and apparently miraculously reappears seven years later as a handsome muscular hunk with the hots for Bertrande. She may not believe her luck, but she doesn’t kick him out of bed either. All might end well, but she has a disappointed admirer who discovers the happy couple are closet Protestants…
Religious hate provides an effective backdrop, and if events seem as lurid as a period horror movie, complete with authentically dirt-besmirched peasants, it only adds to the storytelling.
There are wonderful moments, often because the actors are playing instruments. Kelly O'Leary’s sultry, repressed Bertrande wistfully plays her cello as Martin rejects her in song; Michael Howcroft’s celibate Priest fingers the curves of his instrument. Andrew Bevis’s Martin is a gloriously pure tenor and Ben Goddard’s ardent impostor is a believable hunkier version. There’s a real sexual charge when he and Bertrande circle each other in a first dance.
Karen Mann, Rosie Timpson and Susannah Van Den Berg relish their show-stopping “Sleeping on our Own”, three widows reminiscing about the ups and downs of the marriage bed! Though the rest of the driving insistent melodies and simplistic lyrics don’t do it for me, the great storytelling does – and, on the night I attended, the audience gave the show a deserved standing ovation.