It is often said that musicals are not written they are rewritten and that is certainly true of Martin Guerre which has had several reworkings. The first version premièred in London at the Prince Edward Theatre on 10 July 1996. Edward Hardy worked on the lyrics and Declan Donnellan directed. It was a spectacular production but not only were the reviews mixed there were also some major concerns expressed by the public and the creative team alike. In the early weeks the creative team worked hard and quickly to clarify the narrative, rearrange some of the material and remove one pretty but non-essential song. But the story did not have the emotional tug on the heartstrings that their previous work had. Stephen Clark took over as co-lyricist and small changes were continually being made. But in order to make more radical changes the show was closed from 28-31 October 1996 and the production was completely revised. This revised version opened after a week of previews on 11 November 1996. The critical response was significantly improved and the revised show went on to win the 1997 Laurence Olivier Awards for Best Musical and Best Choreography, before finally closing on 28 February 1998 after 675 performances.
Alain and Claude-Michel, however, could not get Martin Guerre out of their minds and so were unable to move on to anything else. They kept coming up with new ideas and decided they could not rest until they had rewritten the show. The West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds became the new, nurturing home for a completely rewritten version with Stephen Clark co-writing the lyrics and Conall Morrison directing. The Artistic Director, Jude Kelly, invited Alain and Claude-Michel to rework their musical there and in a co-production between The West Yorkshire Playhouse and Cameron Mackintosh Martin Guerre opened on 8 December 1998. It then embarked on a national tour, which ended in Bristol on 7 August 1999, after 227 performances, before being taken to the States.
The North American première of Martin Guerre was at the renowned Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis on 29 September 1999. The Artistic Director Joe Dowling welcomed the opportunity for a co-production between the Guthrie Theater and Cameron Mackintosh so that Martin Guerre could be fine-tuned for its first American audience. There was some more reworking of the show for this production. Some musical numbers were moved and there was a general softening of the village characters to make them more likeable and more individual. This production then toured, playing in Detroit, Washington, Seattle and Los Angeles. See Show Updates for details of the latest version of Martin Guerre.
On the Battlefield, 1564
After a fierce battle, Martin and Arnaud reflect on the futility of their lives as soldiers and on their close friendship, and Martin reveals that he was married at fourteen.
In Artigat, seven years earlier
Bertrande, Guillaume, and Martin are playing childishly together when the scene merges into the wedding of Bertrande and Martin, with Guillaume watching on jealously. Martin’s Uncle Pierre and the other villagers forcefully impress upon the young couple the need for a child, an important heir for Catholic Artigat. Protestants briefly appear, and are treated with hostility. Martin’s failure to consummate the marriage is seen as the work of the devil and the cause of the continuing deluge the village is suffering from. Father Dominic publicly whips Martin to release the demons in him. Martin, totally humiliated, rejects Bertrande’s sympathy and decides to leave in search of a new life.
On the Battlefield, 1564
Arnaud persuades Martin that it is time to return to Artigat, and they decide to go together. But the Protestants attack, and Martin is badly wounded saving Arnaud’s life. As he lies dying he asks Arnaud to tell Bertrande he is sorry.
Artigat is suffering from a drought now, and again it is Bertrande’s barren state that is held to blame. In her despair she turns to the more sympathetic covert Protestants and becomes one of them. Father Dominic insists that Bertrande marry Guillaume, but she hates him and refuses, always hoping that Martin will return.
Artigat, three months later
Benoit, the village fool, is out in the fields with Louison, his beloved scarecrow, when Arnaud arrives looking for Bertrande. He tells Benoit his name but when Benoit rushes into the village to tell them a stranger is looking for Bertrande they don’t give him the chance to say who it is and immediately jump to the conclusion that Martin has returned. Bertrande does realise that it is not Martin, but when Arnaud tells her that Martin is dead she decides to let Arnaud stay, which is what the village wants, rather than be forced into marriage with Guillaume. Arnaud takes up village life with gusto, and when the harvest is good they believe it is because of him. Arnaud worries about the deception, but by now he and Bertrande have fallen deeply in love and eventually they allow themselves to make love. Bertrande confesses to him that she is now a Protestant, and Arnaud accompanies her to the Protestant service held secretly in the woods. At the feast Arnaud announces that Bertrande is carrying their child, but Guillaume denounces him as a Protestant and draws a knife on him. In order to save him, Benoit stuns everyone by saying that it is not Martin, and Arnaud is arrested so that he can stand trial. As the curtain falls there is a dramatic glimpse of Martin, alive and on his way back to Artigat.
Artigat, a week later
Martin is seen wondering if Bertrande still loves him, while Arnaud is in jail believing he is going to die. The court case begins, and the Judge calls for witnesses to identify who the prisoner really is. Nothing is clear, the Catholics and Protestants cause uproar, and the judge has just ruled that there is no case to answer when Martin appears. Bertrande is called to identify the real Martin, but Arnaud then confesses and Bertrande admits that she knew all the time that he was not Martin. The judge sends Arnaud to jail, leaving it up to Martin to decide his fate. Guillaume whips up hatred for the Protestants, inciting violence and ripping Louison apart.
At the Jail
Arnaud tries to explain to Martin that he believed him dead, and although Martin feels betrayed he unselfishly sets him free so that Arnaud and Bertrande can continue to live their lives together.
In the Village Square
Guillaume and the Catholics attack the Protestants and burn the village, many of them dying in the fighting. Guillaume holds a knife to Bertrande’s throat, and Martin and Arnaud both try to distract his attention away from her. As Guillaume is about to stab Martin, Arnaud intervenes and is stabbed instead, saving Martin’s life. Benoit then kills Guillaume with the heavy wooden post that supported Louison. As Arnaud lies dying in Bertrande’s arms, he asks Martin to forgive him and to care for his child. While still proclaiming her love for Arnaud, Bertrande reaches out for Martin’s hand.
The Original London Cast Recording and The 1999 Cast Recording are available from First Night Records