The set was simple but effective. Wooden floors and walls with 2 large tables which doubled up as backdrops to interior scenes. The opening consisted of a cannon in the centre of the stage with bodies hanging from the gallows all around. The lighting was most effective especially in the rain / drought scenes and at the fore during the opening Act 2 duet between Arnaud in his cold cell and Martin walking through the fields.
This is a slick show moving effortlessly between times and settings. The atmosphere on stage was constantly that of a tight rural community ruled with an iron rod by the priest. His word that someone was possessed by the devil, claims aimed at both Bertrande and Martin, threw the village into wailing and crying by the villagers as the priest cleansed the victims. This priest , played by to the fore by Gareth Snook, is not the church figure you would go to for sympathy he is more of a fanatic constantly looking for someone in the village to blame for the problems of the village. More often than not Bertrande was named as the cause first for the rain and then the drought, all because of her marriage failure. Martin is the first victim, flayed to bring the devil from him which the village believe is stopping him consummating his marriage.
Joanna Riding is a perfect Bertrande, playing her from the innocent child forced to wed her playmate to the woman caught between the two men in her life, her husband and her lover. She has a wonderfully powerful voice but also changed her singing voice as she matured from the 14 year old to a woman. She brought out the emotions of Bertrande to the fore wherever we were in her story and in particular in her developing relationship with Arnaud and in the final moments of the show as she held the dying Arnaud in her arms. Her simple final gesture, of her hand outstretched to Martin, was a sign that she would need him more than ever as her lover and his friend had gone and Arnaud's wish was for them to live together and make a go of their marriage and this is something that both needed.
Matt Cammelle is a very charismatic Arnaud and he worked well both with Joanna and Stephen bringing out the differing relationships with both of them. He creates a character trapped in a way into staying in the village but then gradually getting comfortable in the village life and taking his place as one of the main men in the village. I particularly liked in the court scene how he turned away when Martin came into the court, was this guilt for what he had done or panic that the pretence was falling apart ?
Stephen Weller created a very believable Martin Guerre and for me was more effective as the older rather than the younger Martin. He sang the title song with bravado and the change in pace and orchestration from the version heard at the Hey Mr Producer concert meant a song more meaningful at explaining Martin's anguish and anger at his treatment by the village. Again in the Court section I liked Martinís reaction when he saw who was impersonating him. This seemed to be a double betrayal for him, now it wasn't just his wife with another man, this other man was his best friend.
I am very partial to duets with men and was rewarded here with three 'Live with Someone you Love', With you as a friend' and 'If you Still love me' performed excellently by Matt and Stephen.
The relationship between Guillaume and Bertrande is one from childhood and although he is desperate for her to marry him her rejection of him is that she can't because she is married already and although Martin has been away 7 years she will remain faithful to him. His later actions do not endear him any more to her with his fanatical persecution of the Protestants and obsession with unmasking 'Martin'. Once more in the court, a popular place for my favourite bits !, after his lines 'Damn the lies the love they steal, the scars I bear will never heal' he turns to one of the village women who takes him in her arms as he crys in desperation. A human Guillaume, yes this Guillaume is one who crys and Maurice Clark plays him very effectively bringing out just the right amount of anger and frustration in the character.
Benoit is a lot smaller part although he still holds the key to Arnaud's true identity and Louison again falls victim to the Catholics attack on the Protestants. I felt so sorry for Benoit as he cradled Louison in pieces saying how would he manage without her. Terry Kelly as the simple boy trying to do the right thing, created the empathy of the audience for his innocent dilemma. But no one has yet to come close to Michael Matus, for me he will always be Benoit.
The courtroom is in keeping with the makeshift courts of the period. The witnesses came forward in a muddled succession giving evidence much of which was quickly dismissed by the judge as he tried to salvage the truth from the religious biased and charged accusations between the Catholics and Protestants. Geoffrey Abbott gives the judge a human side as he attempts to unravel the case and this is brought out very well in his solo introduction to 'The Imposter is here'.
The Protestants are well hidden with the framework of the village only standing out, and then very subtly, during the church scenes a they choose to continually pray rather than join in with the congregation. As they sang their anthem of 'The Holy Fight' the devotion to their faith resounded around the theatre led by Catherine and Andre, Lisa Peace and Jonathan Penton.
Now that the potential romance has been lost between Madame de Rols and Pierre Guerre their characters have taken on a more believable charactersation and Kerry Washington and Michael Bauer certainly create parents I wouldn't want to have organising my life which Martin does reiterate to Pierre with words to the effect of 'Stop interfereing, this is my life'!.
The chorus were well honed and brought the village of Artigat to life with their individual characters and when they all joined together in song this was a full rich sound.
The only critiscism, please get rid of the Mathilde character. This is not convincing and surely the same identification could be done by another villager.
The show is beautifully crafted together by the creative team with this number of excellent performances rarely seen together in one show. Claude-Michel Schonberg has written a beautiful and evocative score with so many strong themes which resound in your head long after the end. This new Martin Guerre is a visually and emotionally a classic show. It is not looking for big numbers and rousing finishes but tells a story in song without the need for comedy or glitter. This Martin will live and deserves to for a long time.
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