Seven hundred performances and an Olivier Award for Best New Musical. For some, this would be seen as a mark of success. But Martin Guerre was a comparative failure for Alain Boublil, Claude-Michel Schonberg and Cameron Mackintosh who are, after all, the team responsible for the blockbuster world-wide mega-hits Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. Critically, the show, originally damned, received better notices following a revamp three months after the 1996 opening. Despite the major re-writes and more positive reactions, however, the originators remained unhappy with the show. Which brings us to Leeds in 1998 and Martin Guerre, mark three.
The changes are wide ranging, with new music and lyrics (courtesy of Boublil, Schonberg and Stephen Clark), re-orchestration of old numbers (William David Brohn), new set (John Napier) and costume designs (Andreane Neofitou), a reduced cast, a scaled down orchestra, fresh choreography (David Bolger) and a new director (Conall Morrison). It is still the tale of events that happened in Artigat in 16th century France but, to all intents and purposes, this is a brand new show on a scale that befits the subject matter. So forget your preconceptions based on previous incarnations, reviews and hearsay - the collaborative efforts of many ensure that they have finally got it right.
Martin Guerre is a quintessential love story, albeit one that involves the quartet of Martin (Stephen Weller), Arnaud (Matthew Cammelle), Bertrande (Joanna Riding) and Guillaume (Maurice Clarke) and set against the backdrop of religious war. Here is a well known case of mistaken identity involving complicity in the name of love. Four confused individuals intent on tearing each other apart as the community they live in also looks destined for self destruction. The disparate elements make this a difficult story to piece together although, unlike Guerres mark one and two, the stitching in this instance is somewhat tighter.
Napier's quite wonderful yet stark and rugged set design offers a harsh landscape for Bolger's fitting Gaelic moves to be performed in. The revised lyrics and new songs propel the narrative along with a more distinct clarity of purpose, and the whole shebang is more pleasing to the ears. The show opener and closer, “Live With Somebody You Love”, foregrounds the love story and the ethos that love will conquer all. “Dear Louison”, village idiot Benoit's (Terry Kelly) moment of glory, is, like the foot stomping “Welcome to the Land”, a big crowd pleaser and a light moment in what is a dark, though nevertheless outstanding, portrayal of events.
Note: The following review dates from the musical's last West End incarnation in 1997.
Martin Guerre at the Prince Edward Theatre
Martin Guerre first opened in July 1996 to very bad reviews. Producer Cameron Mackintosh - responsible for such mega-musicals as Les Miserables, Oliver! and Miss Saigon - invested £4m to re-package the show. The new production opened in November 1996.
Based on a real life story, the tale of Martin Guerre is, by now, a familiar one. Over the past centuries, it has spawned several books and, more recently, a successful French film as well as a Hollywood remake (Sommersby starring Jodie Foster and Richard Gere) which transplanted the action to the American civil war. In Mackintosh s stage adaptation, we are back in the France of 1551 where, after years of fighting the Protestants, Martin Guerre returns to his poor, provincial, Catholic family a changed man only to have his identity questioned - and rightly so.
The play begins with an impressive ensemble introduction - 'Working on the Land' which was a result of the reworking - in the style of a mix between Riverdance and Les Miserables. After such a heady start, we are hastily introduced to Bertrande De Rols (Jenna Russell) and the real Martin Guerre (Michael Cahill) and are whizzed through their early, unhappy life together. It is not until the fake Martin, Arnaud Du Thil (Hal Fowler), returns years later that Bertrande finds love and motherhood. Sadly, the couple s happiness is short-lived as suspicions about 'Martin s' identity from Bertrande s admirer Guillaume (David Shannon) force a court trial and possible execution.
There are a few real clunker elements to the plot. In particular, the religious friction and how this impacts on Martin s trial seem contrived. In fact, this did not figure in the real story and was only added to the legend several centuries later - it still feels tacked on. Similarly, a barrage of modern sexual innuendo in the first act seems out of place in 16th century France.
Martin Guerre is obviously a big budget production - the wonderful choreography pays homage to that. Sadly, the singing does not. On the whole, it is very poor with notable exceptions from Fowler; Martin s greedy uncle Pierre, played by Don Gallagher; and Sebastien Torkia s lame boy Benoit.
Despite their best efforts and the enormous promotional muscle behind the new production, Martin Guerre still doesn t quite satisfy. Although some critics have altered their originally damning comments, the play has not succeeded in drawing the big audiences and will never achieve the blockbuster label that other Mackintosh productions have. Martin Guerre is currently booking to January 1998.