In Defense of Martin Guerre

In Defense of Martin Guerre For the third time in little more than a decade or so, it would seem from all but about two of the first dozen reviews, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg have written a great and classic musical that nobody likes except the public. When they come to write the history of our theatre in the second half of this century, and in the process to rewrite first reactions to it, they will, I now firmly believe, come to realize that one team outclassed in ambition and sometimes also in achievement even that of Lerner-Loewe or Rodgers-Hammerstein or Rodgers-Hart.

For the third time in little more than a decade or so, it would seem from all but about two of the first dozen reviews, Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg have written a great and classic musical that nobody likes except the public. When they come to write the history of our theatre in the second half of this century, and in the process to rewrite first reactions to it, they will, I now firmly believe, come to realize that one team outclassed in ambition and sometimes also in achievement even that of Lerner-Loewe or Rodgers-Hammerstein or Rodgers-Hart.

What Boublil-Schönberg give us at five-year intervals are the operettas of our time: great soaring scores, heartbreaking books and lavish stagings bringing to rich theatrical life moments when French history at home or abroad was on the turn.

But overwhelming, epic emotions on the broadest of scales are oddly unfashionable in a minimalist stage age: When Les Misérables first opened at the Barbican 11 years ago and I suggested that it was the musical of this half-century just as securely as Porgy and Bess was of the first, I was told that it was‹on the contrary‹too long, too French, too obscure in plot and intention.

A decade and 50 worldwide productions later, I have surely the right to remind you of how misguided those early notices were, and of the ludicrous way we are now being told that Martin Guerre (Prince Edward Theatre) is "not as good as Les Miz" when that opened to equally dismissive notices. Martin Guerre is, in its own very difficult way, as much a masterpiece of musical magic and mystery as that earlier score, and you can bet your life that whatever Boublil-Schönberg write in the year 2006 will be similarly dismissed as "not as good as Martin Guerre."

Once again the setting is their native France (even Miss Saigon, though set in Vietnam, stems from a French original), but this time in the Basque borderlands of the middle ages. We are somewhere in the sixteenth century, and a man has returned from religious wars to a small village claiming to be the Martin Guerre who left it and a young wife several years earlier.
This much will be familiar to anyone who has seen the French or American (Sommersby) movie versions, but there all similarity ends; Boublil-Schönberg have transformed Martin Guerre from an identity thriller to the story of an isolated, incestuous community in social, familial and ecclesiastical turmoil.

The new story, lighter and brisker than Les Miz and still richer in plot and character, is again the story of a community in transitional historical crisis and again told through the trumpets and drums and cellos of an orchestral masterpiece under the guidance this time of Jonathan Tunick.

Sure, there are times when Martin Guerre resembles an unholy wedding of Brigadoon and The Crucible: The echoes of Arthur Miller and the choreographer Agnes de Mille (brilliantly saluted by Bob Avian in a series of floor-stamping routines, which perfectly connect the cast to the farmland that is their livelihood) are everywhere. Elsewhere, there are echoes of Don Giovanni as a Commendatore returns from the grave, and even of Macbeth as three old crones foretell the troubled future of their hero.

But in the end, Martin Guerre belongs to nobody but himself: Declan Donellan as director wondrously brings his own intimate experience with his Cheek by Jowl and such other revolutionary small-scale touring companies as Theatre de Complicite and Shared Experience to re-create the tensions of an isolated village community just as Nunn and Caird used the RSC Nicholas Nickleby experience to meet the massive demands of Les Miz. In a joky tribute to that famous predecessor, Donellan even has his full company do the famous RSC race to the footlights.

Yet, there is a great deal more going on here, not least a mystical sense of war and religion, death and rebirth, deception and redemption. A cripple sings one of the most haunting love songs in the show to a scarecrow, even as the misfits of medieval history try to come to terms with an outcast woman whose unborn child may yet prove the saving of their community.

The lyrics of Edward Hardy and Herbert Kretzmer and Boublil himself wonderfully counterpoint the soaring strings of Schönberg in Jonathan Tunick's breath-taking orchestrations; a song like "All I Know" will become a classic wherever great show songs are sung, and as the ghosts of all the great storytellers of world history gather around this legendary folk-tale‹as the putative Martin Guerre is christened, already in the crucifix position, a Protestant in a very Catholic community‹we begin to understand that this is something even more than a Devil's Disciple set to music.

Donellan's intelligent staging and Cameron Mackintosh's hugely loving production ensure that whenever spectacle is needed, we get it: The village goes up in flames as satisfactorily as those which burnt Scarlett O'Hara's Atlanta.

But in the end this remains an intimate tale of prejudice and passion, love and other loyalties, and if its central casting is a little uncharismatic (neither Iain Glen nor Juliette Caton manage to rise to the show's huge vocal and dramatic demands), we are more than compensated by a supporting cast of rare brilliance led by Michael Matus as the holy fool who acts as the crippled narrator to these terrible events.

A lot of plot seems to happen in the last 20 minutes rather than the first hour or two: But here as in Saigon and Les Miz it takes time to construct an edifice of such complexity that only afterwards do you begin to appreciate its full religious mystery.

And finally, a prediction: Worldwide, I believe that Martin Guerre, whoever he really is, will be around a lot longer than many of his earliest detractors, and maybe even some of their newspapers. Boublil-Schönberg may never become the critical darlings of a minimalist Sondheim age, but their eternal emotional and theatrical understanding of what an audience really wants of a major musical remains unchallenged, undimmed and unrivaled.

-- By Sheridan Morley