July 2007: Martin Guerre at the Watermill – Review, Cast and Interview With Craig Revel Horwood

 A brand new production of Martin Guerre opened at the Watermill Theatre in Newbury on July, 11 2007 with the official opening night on July 16. It was a sell-out and ran to high critical acclaim for its allotted 8 weeks until September 1. It was directed and choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, and it was an actor/musician production, whereby all the musical instruments were played by the actors on stage, who needed to know the score by heart and play it without music, rather than by an orchestra in the pit. It followed in the tradition of several other immensely successful actor/musician productions at the Watermill such as Hot Mikado (also directed by Craig Revel Horwood) and Sweeny Todd, which transferred to London and Broadway.

The Watermill asked Craig to come up with a new musical for 2007 and he chose to do a reinvention of Martin Guerre. Craig had been Assistant Choreographer on the original London version of the show and so it is on this score that the new production was based. The script and lyrics were specially revised by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, and included “Live With Somebody You Love”, taken from the touring production and turned into a soaring love duet in Act 1. When permission was granted for the show to go ahead, from Cameron Mackintosh, Alain and Claude-Michel, they thought it was for a production in eighteen months time. In reality there were just two months to complete the writing before rehearsals began!

Kelly O'Leary, Ben Goddard

So what could a small actor/musician production achieve in a two hundred-seater theatre that the larger, more lavish productions could not? Well, Alain and Claude-Michel had always wanted it to be a small, intimate show and, in a nutshell, it was simply a case of “less is more.” The simplicity of the production allowed the story to shine through and the emotion to be purely felt – without anything distracting or detracting from the central story. There’s no doubt that the Watermill must have been the perfect setting. It’s an extraordinarily beautiful theatre and, in the case of Martin Guerre, the wooden auditorium was an extension of the Artigat set, so that the audience felt that they were not just watching a production but were part of it. The pared down story had crystal clarity, the religious background and central Love Story merged seamlessly and effortlessly, the suspense was kept up right to the last minute, the chemistry between the characters was almost tangible and the ending was unmitigated heart-rending tragedy.

The musical instruments on stage were quickly accepted as the convention for the piece and cleverly served as an extension of each character’s psyche. The cast were extraordinarily talented, as they not only acted, danced and sung wonderfully but also played a variety of musical instruments, some sixteen in all. Different characters would play an instrument at different times, according to the action of the story at the time. So the cello, for example, was played by both Bertrande and Guillaume and some characters played more than one instrument.

There are three essential differences between this and other productions, aside from the obvious one of having actor/musicians. Firstly, Bertrande doesn’t appear to know that it is not Martin who returned and she is not openly complicit in the deception. We do realize at the very end, when, grieving and sobbing over Arnaud’s body, she whispers, heart-heartbreakingly, that she knew all the time. It is a moment of unmitigated tragedy and not softened by any reconciliation with Martin or the villagers, who all turn their backs on her. Secondly, the show is significantly shorter, running at about 1 hour 50 minutes, but strangely it doesn’t feel like anything’s missing. Thirdly, there are several chunks of dialogue which work very well adding clarity and impact as well as economy and are achieved so smoothly that you never notice the shifts between speaking and singing. Using this amount of dialogue is significantly different from any of their other shows or productions to date.

Some of the lesser changes are to do with characterization, mainly that Martin does not care for Bertrande at all, and the love triangle is Bertrande, Arnaud, Guillaume. Pierre is definitely greedier, and more obviously conniving and self-seeking. Benoit has a smaller role and no particular friendship with Bertrande, while Louison, his scarecrow is cleverly fashioned from the end of his guitar. The Catholic Church is presented much less harshly. The priest is played with utter conviction and real powers of rhetoric and he prevents Guillaume being killed by Benoit at the end. Finally, Arnaud and Martin looked credibly enough alike for us and the villagers to really believe that one has returned an older, hunkier version of the other. This new version is now considered as the blueprint for future productions of Martin Guerre.

CREATIVE TEAM

Director & choreographer Craig Revel Horwood
Musical Arrangements &Musical Supervision Sarah Travis
Designer Diego Pitarch
Lighting Designer Richard G Jones
Sound Designer Gary Dixon

CAST

Martin Guerre Andrew Bevis
Catherine Esther Biddle
Arnaud du Thil Ben Goddard
Father Dominic/Judge Michael Howcroft
Madame de Rols Karen Mann
Bertrande de Rols Kelly O’Leary
André Kit Orton
Hortense Rosie Timpson
Pierre Guerre James Traherne
Guillaume Jez Unwin
Ernestine Susannah Van Den Berg
Benoit Johnson Willis

MUSICAL NUMBERS

ACT ONE ACT TWO
Overture The Courtroom
Working on the Land Martin Guerre (Reprise)
Where’s the Child? Someone
Martin Guerre The Imposters
Here comes the Morning The Last Witness
Sleeping on Our Own Here Comes The Morning
Duty (Reprise)
When Will Someone Hear? The Sentence
Louison: Someone as Beautiful As Her I Will make You Proud
Thank God You’re Here The Jail
What Do I Say? The Reckoning
The Seasons
Live With Somebody You Love
Bethlehem
The Dinner
One By One
Live With Somebody You Love (Reprise)

Interview with Craig Revel Horwood

Craig Revel Horwood: The Watermill’s production of Martin Guerre is unique in many ways. Primarily, Bertrande does not know that Arnaud is not Martin until the courtroom scene, which adds jeopardy and drama to the story. I strongly believed in that, because you feel more empathy for her. In fact, the show really comes from Bertrande’s point of view. Secondly, it’s an actor/musician show, which presented many difficult challenges. The first being the density of the score and the show being mostly sung through. Then, having to reduce and combine characters to enable a company of twelve multi-tasking actors to play the roles rather than the thirty it was originally written for. Finally, the show has been re-written especially for our production, which also makes it one of a kind and, I suppose, a world première!

I always felt the show was a chamber piece and believed that the treatment of it should be simple, like the story and peasant life. The Watermill is an amazing space to set the action as it has a 16th century French peasant barn feel, with all those lovely oak beams, which we carry through into our scenery, supporting the story of the play. Being both Director and Choreographer means that the show is coming from a single perspective and I had a very clear vision of it. Alain and Claude-Michel wrote a wonderful piece and I wanted to do them proud. I modernized the characters in some ways and because it’s simplified I think you get to know the characters a lot more – they’re not masked by huge production values.

In an actor/musician show it is important to make use of the instruments in as many ways as possible so they’re not a hindrance but actually help the play and point up the drama. For instance, Bertrande cradling the cello as the baby she wants, or Guillaume using a cello bow in place of a weapon. When you have instruments on stage it’s important not to have too many props or it becomes clumsy. For instance in the dinner party scene you couldn’t use a table and have them sitting round it with their instruments – it would have just looked weird, so instead I gathered them in a more informal way, as if at a party, and it looked very natural and peasant-like. The aim is for the audience to forget they are playing instruments, and it was important that they weren’t too shiny, after all you wouldn’t expect to see a shiny brass trumpet in a 16th century village! So we used old, tarnished instruments and leather bound them.

It was a seemingly impossible show to cast – the roles were gender specific, vocals specific, looks specific, age specific and instrument specific – and they had to be able to dance too! On top of that Martin and Arnaud had to look enough alike to be credible and they both had to be concert pianists as they were largely responsible for the musical direction, playing the keyboard and bringing the cast in by a nod of the head. The hardest thing was putting the jigsaw together – you couldn’t have Bertrande playing a trumpet because that would be out of character. The trumpet had to be played by Madame de Rols, a loud brash character. The other problem was who to cast first because the knock on effect is a nightmare and the last person to cast is always the hardest. But we lucked out and in the end I cast it in two weeks. In such a small production there are no understudies – the cast just have to go on regardless and if anyone had really been too ill to go on, the performance would have had to be cancelled.

You don’t need a lot of dialogue when the staging can say so much. The dancing is there too, as a means of communication, and I crossed Flamenco clapping with German slapping to create something unique and earthy for the village. I worked closely with the set designer Diego Pitarch to create an intimate village space that was small and gossipy but not “Disneyfied.” The battle scenes were achieved just by smoke and noise, but incredibly effective. I didn’t go in with any great plan. I always start from images – I have a painting in my mind and I just bring the painting to life. When the cast are playing instruments you just have to be that much more creative – you can’t have them working the land, for example, but it often leads to some unusual ideas. I always try to bring out the sex in the scenes, to heighten the subtext and to be realistic yet stylized. And I try to find the humour in it. So we brought back “Sleeping on Our Own” – it’s one of the highlights.

We didn’t need music for scene changes and that made it shorter too. With Sarah Travis’ orchestrations, the score sounds really full, even though it’s played by just 12 people. I’ve always loved the score and found the story compelling and epic. However, I believe paring it down to the bare basics is exactly what was needed to bring out the beautiful melody lines of the score and to focus much more on the individual love story set amidst one of the most terrible religious wars. I don’t see it as a tale from the past, but a timeless and modern story, which I felt privileged to work on again.

Martin Guerre Reviews

The Watermill production received mostly rave reviews. There were very few mixed reviews, from critics who clearly stated that they have never liked either story or score and felt that an excellent production only masked inherent flaws: Thanks to this production’s fantastically fast churn-rate of scenes, though, we can overlook the chaff and savour the wheat, such as it is. (Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph); This would be strictly one for the Les Mis fans were it not for a production and cast who once again demonstrate why the Watermill deserves its place high on the roster of British regional theatres. (Lyn Gardner, Guardian) and: Thankfully, the sterling ensemble playing and the understated musicianship go a long way towards camouflaging the flaws. (Clive Davis, The Times).

However, the vast majority of reviews heaped glowing praise on this revised production: C’EST MAGNIFIQUE AND YES, IT IS THE GUERRE. This stripping down process proves revelatory, as warm, luxurious melodies and stirring lyrics flow from the largely through-sung score … The battle has been won – the Guerre, too. The West End should demand to see the results. (Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard); It is hard not to use superlatives when the Watermill Theatre has once again exceeded all expectations … The show is full of passion, emotive contrasts and high energy, all of which are carried buoyantly along by the remarkable talents of the actor/musician cast. (Julie Watterston, The Stage); A totally captivating, transfixing piece of Musical Theatre which fulfilled all criteria for success … the cast turn in exhilarating performances and the entire company is to be congratulated for giving us a spell-binding evening of unqualified success. Surely it is worthy of a transfer. (Lynda Trapnell, Musical Stages); 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. (Judi Herman, What’s On Stage); NOT JUST GOOD, IT’S GUERRE-ATE. While this is a love story, it contains much that is hilarious, particularly from a trio of rumbustious village women who switch between being gossips and viragos and who join the men in an exuberant, mesmerising, almost show-stopping clog dance which has Revel Horwood magic written all over it. Martin Guerre is not just good, it’s terrific! (Caroline Franklin, Newbury Weekly News); Craig Revel Horwood’s Watermill production succeeds prodigiously … The pocket-sized stage is thrust into the audience so that you can hear every word and see even the subtlest expression … the performance leaves the audience breathless. (Ian Wilcox, Theatre World Review) and: What a triumph for hope over experience! Martin Guerre at the Watermill is a stunning success … the ensemble cast bring out the passion and intensity of small village life, the set adds to the claustrophobia, and the closeness of the audience completes the picture … This is a memorable show. (Mike Rowbottom, Henley Standard).

Martin Guerre was nominated for a TMA (Theatrical Management Association) Award for Best Musical Production 2007.

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