Tuesday, 14 January 2020

Theatre review: Cyrano de Bergerac

“They set in in the 17th century, gave him a long nose, maybe made it a bit funnier... but for the British, Bergerac will always be John Nettles.”

Jamie Lloyd is a director known for being able to get big names on stage, rather than one who has an unofficial company of actors he keeps working with; but one regular collaborator is James McAvoy, who takes the lead as Lloyd launches his latest West End residency, this time a selection of eyewateringly-priced international classics at the Playhouse. And if there's any doubt that this opening salvo is going for a stripped-back style, the one thing that everyone automatically associates with Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac doesn't make an appearance on McAvoy's face. In 1640 Paris, soldier Cyrano is notorious for three things: One is his proficiency with a sword, which sees him able to take out multiple assailants on his own, and also means he can take brutal revenge on anyone who seems to be making fun of his second notable feature, his unusually large nose. But it’s the third thing that becomes central to the play’s plot, and therefore the only one that Lloyd actually stages in a literal way.

Paris’ café society, in which the regiment is a fixture, is obsessed with poetry, and at Leila Ragueneau’s (Michele Austin) café the originality, spontaneity and wittiness of the verse is prized above all else – and Cyrano is the undisputed master of it, as he proves when he responds to a rival making fun of his nose by coming up with multiple, much better insults (before also physically injuring him in a duel.)

Martin Crimp’s new version of the play finds the perfect modern parallel for this verbal sparring, keeping the rhyming couplets but using the rhythms of a rap battle; the play opens with Lignière (Nima Taleghani) introducing new recruit Christian (Eben Figueiredo) to the major characters in the story as they wait for a play to start, and here it reads like a roll-call of MCs. Christian instantly falls for Cyrano’s cousin Roxanne (Anita-Joy Uwajeh,) but because “wanting to fuck your cousin” is somehow one of literature’s most enduring tropes Cyrano has been in love with her all his life as well. Convinced she’d never think of him that way because of his looks, he comes up with a masochistic way to tell Roxanne how he feels: He’ll not only act as an intermediary between her and Christian, but also write the letters and rhymes the tongue-tied soldier needs to woo her with.

One name you can reliably expect to see alongside Jamie Lloyd’s is designer Soutra Gilmour, whose modern-dress costumes are complemented by a plain wooden set; it forms a small downstage room for the more intimate scenes, while the back wall rises to accommodate the large full cast when needed, Jon Clark’s lighting sometimes giving it a concert feel. The longer first act keeps up an impressive energy and intensity for a solid ninety minutes as the characters square up to each other, McAvoy’s charismatic central performance highlighting how much Cyrano dominates proceedings, fiercely confident in everything except love. With no prosthetics to change the fact that the supposedly grotesque character is being played by the best-looking person on stage, it’s left to him to stare into a mirror upstage, suggesting that for all that other people have sometimes mocked his nose, it’s only to Cyrano himself that his appearance is his defining feature.

The staging is simple but dynamic, but it really is the words and the way they’re spoken that carry the show, and the central theme of words as power is reflected everywhere: As far as reasons to fall for her go, Roxanne’s beauty is always secondary to her intellect – it’s often commented she’s the first woman ever admitted to the university – while De Guiche’s (Tom Edden) status as the play’s villain is established by him being opposed to free speech long before his predatory qualities become apparent. The light wit that punctuates the first act is dialled down for the shorter, more sombre second as the spiteful De Guiche sends Cyrano’s battalion into a suicide mission, but the theme of characters being defined by their words continues, as when one dies it’s signified by them ripping off their radio mic. It’s not without its interesting ideas and twists but it’s the verbal battles that make this one of the most intense evenings I’ve had at the theatre for a while, and an unusually quiet West End audience crackle with palpable tension.

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand in a version by Martin Crimp is booking until the 29th of February at the Playhouse Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Marc Brenner.

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