There isn’t one moment of your life you recall with special tenderness?
Martine is Jean-Jacques Bernard’s most famous play. Set between 1920 and 1921, it tells the story of a girl from a remote village just outside of Paris, who meets a young man just returned from the wars in Syria. Sheltering in the shade together under a tree on a sweltering summer day, the potential for the young lovers is in that one afternoon exuberant and vivid. However, Martine is not a love story. Descending into a raw yet remarkably ordinary tragedy, the play is composed of a narrative that has reverberated throughout literary history- from Richardson’s Pamela to Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles– and yet is eternally captivating.
The play has a rustic rhythm, in which characters are manipulated by the seasonal changes around them as much as they seem to dictate their own lives. The oppressive heat of the opening scenes fuels the erotic desire throbbing in the subtext of the piece. But summer must turn to winter, and the carnal yearnings die with it. As in most post-war literature and theatre, this play discusses binaries; city is set against country, knowledge against passion, and the older generations against the youth.
The cast of five each bring something very different to the scenes. Martine (Hannah Murray) evokes the rural innocence of a woman exposed to a man beyond her social status and her intellectual capacity with a youthful pathos and sensitivity. She is a victim of circumstance, of the limitations of a pastoral existence that provides no alternative. Oppressed further by an earthy, intimidating Alfred (Chris Porter) and a sympathetic yet disconnected Madame Mervan (Susan Penhaligon) Martine’s tragedy is one of social limitation, of a lack of anything better. Julian (Barnaby Sax) embodies what D. H. Lawrence considered the perpetual negotiation between the mind and the body, between intellect and the sexual urges intellect tries to suppress. His erotic desire for Martine is palpable, but it soon burns out. The cast is well balanced and strong, and establishes a multiplicity- each of the characters’ motives can be understood in their own right, even as they contradict and conflict with one another.
The set is simple, and focuses on the tree, a poignant reminder of that one summer day. Sound is utilised extremely well, as the remarkable effect of rarely hearing silence becomes oppressive. Each pause is punctuated by a ticking of a clock, or birdsong, indicative of moments passing that will never be retrieved. Bernard was a playwright heavily invested in the theatrical movementl’ecole du silence, in which attitudes are implied in elements of the performance other than the dialogue. Simple touches, such as Julian’s agitation as he raps repetitively on a book, evoke physically so much of what is not said. Similarly, Martine’s aggressive potato peeling at the play’s conclusion is symbolic of her confinements to the house as Alfred’s wife, her eternal connection to the earth, and the anger that she cannot express but must contain. The play is so simple as it presents the rhythms of country life. Yet in the detail, a remarkable amount is said about the capacity for human emotion and the sheer torment of unrequited love.
Martine is an exceptional play, which will not disappoint. Early booking is recommended.