Ellie Stewart was in Toulouse when she first saw The Return of Martin Guerre, Daniel Vigne’s 1982 feature film set in 16th century mediaeval France. Adapted from Janet Lewis’ novel, The Wife of Martin Guerre, and with roots in a real life incident, Vigne’s film starred Gerard Depardieu as a stranger who walks into a village where he is presented as the long lost husband of a woman whose spouse disappeared seven years previously.
It was the 1980s when Stewart saw the film, and she was on a university Erasmus exchange prior to becoming a French teacher. It was more than twenty years before she returned to the Pyrenees from her Bathgate home, and things seemed as alien to her as much as they were familiar.
“I was being bombarded with all these sensory memories,” says Stewart today, on the eve of her own version of the Martin Guerre story, The Return, opening a fifteen date tour of Scotland at the Inverness-based Eden Court Theatre. “From a personal point of view, I was feeling changed and unchanged at the same time, just by being around that world again. Even though things were different, I suppose I was exploring some kind of emotional truth.”
Stewart also revisited Vigne’s film, which again she saw from a different perspective to how she had while still a student.
“Because the film was made in the 80s, it felt like it had a different tone,” she says. “I was really astonished by how little Bertrande, the wife, played by Nathalie Baye, gets to say in it, and I wondered what would happen if she had more of a voice. In my version as well, the role of their son more came to the fore as a character, as well as becoming a road in for the audience.”
With just actors Emilie Patry and Thoren Ferguson, plus composer/musician Greg Sinclair, onstage, Philip Howard’s production looks set to explore the Martin Guerre story in ways that should have a more contemporary resonance.
“I think the story opens up questions about identity in ways that make you think about what’s happening with refugees today,” says Stewart. “People who are initially accepted into the community, but who are then being sent back to where they came from. There’s also something about whether it mattered if he was there and was who he said he was. From Bertrande’s point of view, in terms of narrative you have to ask if she knew it wasn’t him or not.
“In terms of things being seen from Bertrande’s point of view, the major thing is whether she knew it wasn’t him. Through that, the other thing it opened up is about who tells stories, and how they’re written down. Is there ever a true version of events, or does it all just depend on a particular point of view? We seem to be living in a world where things are either true or fake, good or bad, and there seems to be a need just now for giving our own interpretation, and to say this is what I think. A lot of story-telling depend on different points of view.”
To illustrate this, Stewart points out that “The first person to write the story was the judge in the trial. That’s interesting, because as a judge, he’ll be wanting it to be seen in a different light as well.”
Stewart is referring to Arrest Memorable by Jean de Coras, the best known of two accounts of the Martin Guerre affair to have been documented. The second, Histoire Admirable was by Guillaume Le Suer. Both paved the way for numerous interpretations of a story which has fascinated artists from Alexander Dumas, who wrote two separate accounts of it, to Jon Amiel’s American Civil War set film, Sommersby. Inbetween there has been an opera and three separate musicals drawn from the tale, as well as Lewis’ novel and a 1983 non-fiction study by academic Natalie Zemon Davis. As with Stewart’s take on the story, such a wealth of background material offers up a variety of different readings of the story, with any definitive version of the truth of what actually happened lost to history.
Stewart began writing after teaching French for years, raising a family as she went. Having joined the Writers Gap creative writing group in West Lothian, she was encouraged to submit a scene to Playwrights Studio Scotland. She first connected with Philip Howard while doing an M.Litt. at the University of Glasgow, and was one of the fifty writers who took part in the year-long Traverse 50 initiative to develop new work by playwrights. Stewart’s work has been seen at Oran Mor as part of the A Play, A Pie and A Pint programme, has submitted the first draft of a new play to BBC Radio Scotland, and works with the West Lothian based youth theatre, Firefly Arts.
“Doing The Return is a big leap for me in lots of ways,” says Stewart. “It’s nice at the moment to be writing something that’s quite universal. It could be set anywhere in a way. But it’s also good to be writing something at the moment with a European connection. The more that’s highlighted the better.”
The Return is produced by Eden Court, and reunites the creative team behind the 2015 tour of Stephen MacDonald’s World War One set play about poets Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, Not About Heroes. In keeping with the play’s rural setting, the tour of The Return will take in fifteen venues, and will move from village halls to more formal central belt theatres, including the Traverse in Edinburgh.
“Eden Court were wanting to tour something again,” Stewart explains, “and it’s so exciting for me that a piece of new work can be seen around the country in this way, especially as it’s going outside the central belt in a way that isn’t always possible for theatre companies to do. It’s just really nice to be working with such a solid team.”
This expansion of in-house activity at Eden Court comes following Scotland’s arts funding quango Creative Scotland’s recent announcements regarding its plans for Regularly Funded Organisations (RFOs). The omission of many organisations previously in receipt of RFO status prompted protests, which led to a humiliating U-Turn by Creative Scotland, as funding was restored to five organisations who were previously turned down.
While Eden Court continue as an RFO, in real terms it received a 28 per cent cut. Such starving of resources may prevent further activities at the same level as the current tour of The Return, which might damage the profile and status of the biggest arts centre in the Highlands. Whatever happens next, The Return is a timely reminder of how history can favour one individual over another depending on who has the power to tell a particular story.
“A lot of our instincts and emotions haven’t changed,” says Stewart. “There’s something there about a man rebuilding a life after a trauma. Whether that’s from medical health issues or the effects of war, it’s all true, however far back through history you go.”
The Return, Eden Court Theatre, February 15-17; Howden Park centre, Livingston, February 20; MacRobert Arts Centre, Stirling, February 21; Cumbernauld Theatre, February 22; Tron Theatre, Glasgow, February 23; Byre Theatre, St Andrews, February 24; Strathearn Artspace, Crieff, February 27; Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, February 28-March 1; New Deer Public Hall, New Deer; The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen, March 3; Macphail Centre, Ullapool, March 5; Lochcarron Village Hall, March 7; Boat of Garten Community Hall, March 8; Braemar Village Hall, March 9, Tullynessle and Forbes Hall, Alford, March 10.
The Herald, February 15th 2018