Theatre: Martin Guerre: the face saver



THE OLD adage that musicals aren't written but rewritten applies with unflagging force to Martin Guerre, which now emerges in its third incarnation in Conall Morrison's strikingly starker and more involving production at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. There were grown men in the audience who had seen this Boublil/Schonberg show 32 times. And it sometimes feels as though we critics have attended as many opening nights for it.

The saga began in the summer of 1996 when the Cameron Mackintosh musical premiered in the West End. The reviews were distinctly unenthusiastic and the piece was substantially revised on the hoof for a relaunch in the November of that year. The legend of a man who usurps the name and the wife of a friend he sees die in battle would seem to invite a show about the teasing elusiveness of identity and love.

But such a subtle, fugitive subject does not suit the open-throated, four-square musical talents of the duo who gave us Les Miserables and Miss Saigon. Accordingly, the first revision furthered the process whereby the background turned into the foreground. It became clearer that the main impostor in the piece (relocated to the 16th-century wars of religion) was the self-serving, self-deceiving Catholic community which foists Martin's identity on the stranger to keep its grasp on the land. These improvements did not, however, save the show from an early demise last February.

And now the latest resurrection. Everything about this version, and its staging, is sharper and more focused. Instead of opening with a proscenium arch, gauzy scrims and pictorial peasants miming work, it begins in the thick of the war on a grim, cannon-dominated thrust stage, made intimate by a surrounding wall of mobile wooden planks that become tongued with flame in the final debacle.

The love story and the theme of religious division are for the first time, tightly integrated. The benighted Catholic superstition that drives Martin to the wars and greedily recruits his substitute is intensified. Stephen Weller's Martin is brutally whipped and exorcised for supposedly bringing a blight to the land through not consummating his marriage. The arrival of Matthew Cammelle's sensitive, virile, beautifully sung Arnaud coincides with a thunderstorm which convinces them he is a rain-bringing redeemer.

On the music front, extremely shrewd lessons have been learnt from past mistakes, and there are some artful recyclings. That plangent duet, "Here Comes the Morning", always sounded like a gay love song when delivered by the two male leads on the battlefield. It now makes much more emotional sense as an aching expression of the painful triangle that is formed when Martin returns, and Arnaud is thrown in prison. Likewise, the show's biggest number, "And All I Know", which seemed a simplistic and over hasty declaration of love in the original, is rewritten and held back until the very end of the first half when this duet is forced, thrillingly, to battle against the bigotry of the assembled chorus.

In a rich, stirring voice, Joanna Riding gives the role of Bertrande a hitherto unsuspected subtlety. And as for the peasant stomp-dancing, having been re-choreographed and pared back by David Bolger, it no longer (so to speak) clogs things up. It can be said: Ce n'est pas `Martin Guerre', mais c'est magnifique.

A version of this review appeared in later editions of yesterday's paper