This review was originally written for The Public Reviews: http://www.thepublicreviews.com
Returning from war in Syria to stay with his grandmother in rural France, Julien walks down a country road and catches sight of the lovely Martine, who has found shade from the mid-day sun under a tree. The attraction between them is instant and mutual, but social conventions intervene and unhappiness follows. Seated on three sides of the Finborough’s small stage, the audience is invited to become intimately involved in a haunting story of thwarted love. Jean-Jacques Bernard’s play, written in 1922 and set just before then, was first performed in this translation by John Fowles at the National Theatre in 1985. In Tom Littler’s strangely Anglicised version, the characters are seen as upper middle class toffs and Somerset yokels, distinguishing between town and country folk and between social classes. Perhaps accents are a minor detail, but here they exemplify a lack of subtlety running through much of the production, over-emphasising what is already obvious. The production is at its best when it is underplayed, such as in the tender opening scene, when the couple’s awkward, tactile advances to each other tell all and few words are needed. Hannah Murray captures Martine’s innocence beautifully and then shows her pain as she comes to accept the impossibility of her yearning for Julien and the inevitability of a fate, which will see see her trapped in a loveless marriage to Alfred (Chris Porter). Barnaby Sax is less convincing as Julien, coming across as confident and self-assured, even at times a cad, when perhaps Bernard intended him to be psychologically scarred by war and vulnerable, as much a victim of social pressures as Martine. The reasons for his decision to marry the insecure Jeanne (Leila Crerar) are not well detailed in the play and we are never quite sure whether his abandonment of Martine is a personal choice or one made for him. Orchestrating events and defending society’s established divisions is Julien’s grandmother (Susan Penhaligon), whose stern demeanour and tightly curled silver hair bring to mind a High Court judge giving instructions to a jury. She inhabits sections of the play when the direction feels too heavy-handed and the lack of sympathetic characters, other than Martine herself, begins to eat into the production’s emotional heart. Bernard’s key themes and his central character, a woman imprisoned by social conventions, are somewhat redolent of Ibsen and, notwithstanding the soft amber glow of the lighting and set, this staging has more Scandinavian coldness than French warmth. It is a production that is always competent and worthy, but one that is never quite as moving as it really should be.
Performance date: 24 April 2014