Jean-Jacques Bernard’s 1922 play Martine is a delicately moving depiction of an unhappy love affair in post-First World War rural France. Using John Fowles’s translation commissioned by Peter Hall for his 1985 National Theatre production (the last time the play was staged in this country), which beautifully captures Bernard’s lyrical naturalism, Primavera succeed in conveying its bittersweet tone and subtle shifts in mood. This is yet another great rediscovery for the Finborough Theatre.
At the outset we see how Martine, an uneducated but deep-feeling country girl, and Julien, returning from war in Syria to live with his grandmother as he pursues his career as a journalist, fall for each other in a village not far from Paris. But the arrival of Julien’s old flame and the persistent attentions of a local farmer towards Martine threaten their relationship as class and background assert their claims.
It’s a simple tale told with unaffected but highly affecting naturalness, set against the backdrop of changing seasons of the countryside, domestic chores and the cycle of birth and death. Bernard belonged to ‘l’école du silence’ which rejected the mainstream theatre of melodramatic excess in favour of a more understated and suggestive approach, where audiences have to read between the lines of the characters’ dialogue to understand their true feelings. It’s not hard to see why that master of subtext Pinter was such an admirer of the French playwright.
Director Tom Littler delivers a nicely nuanced, sensuous account of the play, letting it breathe organically, with the actors’ eye contact and body language as much as their words revealing the course of the characters’ evolving relations. Cherry Truluck’s design of spreading tree and earthy colouring has an artless charm, while Max Pappenheim’s sound effects of birds twittering and dogs barking adds to the rustic ambience.
In the title role, Hannah Murray (known for her performances on TV in Skins and Game of Thrones, but also on stage in Polly Stenham’s That Face) makes a strong impact, showing how Martine changes from blooming passion to bitter resignation as her dreams of something more than domestic drudgery wither away. Barnaby Sax does well to suggest that the destructive behaviour of the emotionally illiterate Julien is due more to clumsiness than callousness, as he shrugs off a summer romance. There is good support from Leila Crerar as the bourgeois, possessive Jeanne, Chris Porter as the stolidly determined Alfred and Susan Penhaligon as the well-meaning elderly Madame Mervan who is unaware of the quiet tragedy developing around her.