CYRANO DE BERGERAC
The Playhouse, London, Saturday 7th December, 2019
Jamie Lloyd’s brand-new staging of Edmond Rostand’s beloved classic is not what you might expect. Gone are the period costumes, the plumed hats, the swords. There is not even a nose – we are left to imagine the legendary proboscis. We are left to imagine most of it.
The stage is just about bare: a white box with the odd plastic chair and raised area. The cast line up, like performers in a radio play with handheld microphones. Their attire is contemporary urban. Somebody beatboxes – oh God, we’re at a rap battle, or a spoken-word ‘slam’ or whatever. My heart sinks.
It takes me a while to acclimatise to the staging. Lloyd barely lets his actors address each other directly. Instead they face out and we are in Peep Show territory, where the audience’s point-of-view is that of the person being spoken to. It’s effective but it also keeps a distance between the characters. Any intimacy they might express is put through the prism of our imagination.
Martin Crimp’s new translation serves the original well, in terms of plot, and his verse rattles along with wit and lyricism. Occasionally, the direction distracts with moments of bravura that take us out of the moment, so we notice how clever it is. A scene with characters swapping seats has a musical chairs aspect; it works, in terms of the love triangle but keeps us at bay. What then, with all these alienating moments, are we meant to be considering intellectually? I think we’re meant to be swept away by the seductive power of the words, and there are moments when we are.
This is very much an ensemble piece but inevitably, James McAvoy in the title role commands our attention. His Cyrano is a skinhead in a leather jacket, with the strength and aggression of a soldier, the wit and aptitude for writing of a poet, the facility with language necessary to make him the best. The pangs of unrequited love reveal the man beneath the braggadocio. McAvoy invests the role with a charismatic intensity. The iconic scene where Cyrano impersonates Christian to woo Roxane is hilarious, but also layered. Rostand’s hero is there, coming to the fore, and he still has the power to move us.
Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Roxane is intelligent and headstrong, effing and blinding like a soldier in this male-dominated sphere. Eben Figueiredo’s handsome Christian sounds like a chav. Figueiredo brings out the character’s inner conflict, making the character more than a pretty face. There is strong support from Michele Austin as Ragueneau the poetry-loving baker, and Tom Edden’s snooty De Guiche is more than a pompous antagonist.
Somehow, the romance and dramatic irony of Rostand’s tale come through for a moving denouement, not despite of but somehow because of the stylised staging, the non-naturalistic approach successfully engages our emotions. A woman seated near me is in floods.
By the end, I am sold on it and can even admire the beat-boxing, but I miss the panache, the sword-fighting, and the nose.