If you’re unaware of Martyn Bennett’s work and the influence it’s had on a generation of makers and lovers of music, then this must be your first visit here – welcome. Theatre reviews don’t often make an appearance on these pages, but rarely does a drama with such a strong musical pedigree, in terms of traditional music, come about.
It seems to be very much the season for Scottish cultural icons to be celebrated in theatre. The National Theatre of Scotland’s recent production The Beautiful Cosmos Of Ivor Cutler was a fine tribute to the man’s life and work. And, by a wonderful quirk of fate, Sandy Grierson, who made such a sterling job of portraying Ivor Cutler, also landed the role of Martyn Bennett in Grit – The Martyn Bennett Story, which had its opening night at the Tramway Theatre in Glasgow on Tuesday.
Directed by Cora Bisset of Pachamama Productions, Grit combines the music of Martyn Bennett with drama, dance and film to tell his life story – from his infancy in Nova Scotia and his flourishing love of Scottish culture on moving here; to his emergence as a highly gifted musician, composer and innovator; and his untimely death at 33 after contracting Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
In this thrilling and incredibly emotional production, Grierson’s portrayal of Martyn was both touching and entertaining. Martyn Bennett had a mischievous streak a mile wide that Sandy Grierson seemed to relish just as much as the passion he had for his musical vision. Grierson also excelled at placing his character directly into the hearts of the audience; whether as Martyn the wee boy embarking on a love of the ancient with his Dad, or when suffering the despair of his illness. Hannah Donaldson as Martyn’s wife, Kirstin, brought to life the warmth of their relationship; the hardship and heartache she must have endured as Martyn’s illness worsened and the bewildering complexity that must have been life with Martyn Bennett.
As Martyn’s mother, folklorist and singer Margaret Bennett, Gerda Stevenson’s fine singing voice and grasp of Gaelic was a godsend, as she was for this role. As the mother introducing her son to the worlds of Scottish literature and music or nervously recording song under Martyn’s dictatorial direction Stevenson was the perfect, gentle, nurturer of Grierson’s wide-eyed, inquisitive, perfectionist Martyn. In playing a number of other female roles Gerda Stevenson showed immense versatility, not least with her joyous portrayal of traveller/singer/writer Sheila Stewart, whose guidance was a strong influence on Martyn’s last album.
Dana Gingras’ choreography was stunning. From opening scenes of conflict, to raves with a ceilidh flourish and closing pieces of intense emotion; dancers Shay Kuebler, Ruth Mills and Giulia Montalbano captivated the audience and brought the show to level that could never have been achieved without them. The inclusion of a trapeze artist (Maxime Yelle) as an interpretation of flights of fancy was a small stroke of genius and a thrilling addition to the spectacle. Costume designer Jessica Worrall showed incredible ingenuity with her transformation of the dancers from a crazy clash of day-glow and tartan to harmonic earth colours; an effect that may or may not have been apparent to the audience, but without a doubt helped shape their mood throughout.
Bringing all this music, drama, humour and dance together, Cora Bissett has succeeded in her dream of bringing the energy of Martyn Bennett’s music, his understanding and passion for his own cultural heritage and the paradox of his equally tragic and uplifting story to the stage.
For many of people there’s a strong emotional connection with Martyn Bennett’s music, and with the man himself. This applies to the whole cross-section of tonight’s audience; those who knew Martyn personally, those who know his music, and those for whom this show is an introduction to his work. Never before in theatre have I seen the audience rise as one in ovation the moment the lights drop on the final scene, or witnessed so many tear-rimmed eyes afterwards. Tears not only for the tragedy of Martyn’s parting at such a young age, and at the peak of his creative powers, but through the strength of that emotional attachment to his music and his heritage.
Martyn’s often quoted, but what came into my mind last night during the show was something he said the first time I saw him live. It was before his eponymous first album, when seeing him play live usually meant hearing his music, sharing his vision, for the first time. At one point as he chatted to the audience between numbers he said ‘I don’t know where I’m going to with this kind of thing’. And that’s one of the unique and wonderful things about Martyn Bennett’s music – he often didn’t know where it was going to take him; but his ever growing audience have always been happy to be swept along with him. There’s no doubt that visitors to the Tramway this week will be swept along with the rest of us.
Grit – The Martyn Bennett story is at The Tramway Theatre in Glasgow until Saturday 7th June and at Mull Theatre, Druimfin 20 – 22 June. GRIT will be complemented by a mini-music festival of artists inspired by Martyn’s work at An Tobar on Mull 19 – 22 June.
Review by: Neil McFadyen
Martyn Bennett DJ Set (Brighton 2003)
A little bonus for fans and those new to the world Martyn Bennett:
Photo Credit: BJ Stewart