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 The Theatreguide.London Review


Cyrano de Bergerac
Olivier Theatre Spring 2004

Any Cyrano is better than no Cyrano, so if you have never seen the romantic-comic classic, this opportunity shouldn't be passed by. But if you have seen a production of Cyrano before, I can virtually promise that you've seen it done better than it is here.

The rest of this review is going to be mainly negative, so let me reiterate that the play, like a few of Shakespeare's, is almost indestructible, and even a deeply flawed production like this one will have a lot to offer the first-timer, even if others will find it sorely lacking.

(Does anyone need a plot summary? Dashing poet-swordsman Cyrano, cursed with a comically big nose, loves Roxane, but she loves the handsome but tongue-tied Christian. So Cyrano provides his rival with the lovely words to win her, and keeps the secret after Christian dies in battle.)

I have seen grand and foppish Cyranos (Jose Ferrer), brightly comic Cyranos (Steve Martin), tragically romantic Cyranos (Derek Jacobi) and no-nonsense man's man Cyranos (Tom Mannion). But director Howard Davies and actor Stephen Rea seem to have chosen one I never would have thought of - a glum, unpoetic, uncharismatic Cyrano.

Almost everything about the production is deliberately dreary, from William Dudley's ugly unit set, which vaguely resembles the battlements at the end of Les Miserables, through the colourless costumes to the universal underplaying.

Derek Mahon has provided a new translation of almost unremitting ugliness. Along with deliberate and unfunny anachronisms - allusions to Einstein, Jimmy Durante, euros and Star Trek - he has chosen rhymed couplets that more often than not do not rhyme, assaulting the ear with such grating pairings as times/dreams, choice/face, Cyrano/hitherto and heart/gut.

(You may not think you notice such things, but you do, and meanwhile you are being deprived of the real fun that cleverly accomplished rhymes would provide.)

Stephen Rea was one of the instigators of this project, so it is particularly odd that this usually very fine actor appears so ill-equipped for the role. That he is playing Cyrano more as a ruffian than a dandy is a legitimate choice and might work, but there is an enormous gap between the romantic language he speaks (even in this translation) and the plain, lumpish presence (again, not at all characteristic of him in other roles) he brings to the stage.

You get the sense of an actor early in rehearsals, when he's busy trying to get the words in the right order, and hasn't begun to find his character. Rea may get better as time goes on, but right now he simply does not inhabit the role.

You never, ever believe he's in love - not even in the iconic balcony scene in which, tired of feeding Christian his wooing lines to Roxane above, he uses the cover of darkness to express his love for her directly. If that scene doesn't convey the thrill of his momentary liberation and the pathos of knowing that he knows he will never follow up on this, then you might as well not do the play.

(The balcony scene is further shrunk by some really bad jokes, not in the published text, when Christian mishears the poetry Cyrano is feeding him and turns them into coarse double entendres.)

Zubin Varla is appropriately dense as Christian, Claire Price is appropriately lovely as Roxane, and there are a few interpolated dance numbers to cover scene-shifting that provide some of the liveliest moments of the evening.

Enough of the people around me had a good time to prove that some of the play's charm survived, but enough people left at the interval to show that I was not alone in seeing how much was lost.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Cyrano de Bergerac - National 2004