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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Cyrano De Bergerac
Playhouse Theatre    Winter 2019-2020;     Pinter Theatre Spring 2022

An audacious updating and up-shaking of a venerable classic, this new version of Edmond Rostand's nineteenth-century romantic swashbuckler triumphs on every level.

If you know the play you will encounter many delightful surprises; if you don't, you will enjoy it thoroughly on its own terms.

As we are somehow all born knowing, this is the tale of a seventeenth-century French soldier-poet whose abnormally large nose makes him feel unlovable, so that he channels his adoration of the beauteous Roxanne into ghost-writing letters and speeches of love for the handsome-but-dim Christian.

Adapter Martin Crimp and director Jamie Lloyd start their re-invention with the recognition that the rhymed couplets of the original French text are not very distant cousins to the rhyming-over-rhythm of modern rap and hip-hop. So at least the opening scenes are played over a beatbox, firmly placing this rehearsal-dress production in the modern world.

The beatbox is allowed to fade away after a while, though the actors continue to use hand mics to turn some of their showier speeches into performances. And the twenty-first century sensibility remains, not least in the feisty feminist personality given to the traditionally just-a-pretty-face Roxanne.

James McAvoy's leather-jacketed Cyrano is very much a modern urban figure driven by a nervous energy and racing intelligence that won't let him stand still. In this version he is as much a poet as soldier or lover, driven by a love of language and anger at its misuse.

The first great set-piece of the play, his ironic chastisement of a fool for insulting him unimaginatively, is played here entirely as a language-lover's disgust with the banal it is the poet more than the big-nosed man who has been offended.

Which brings us to the nose. Audaciously, director Lloyd and actor McAvoy have chosen to omit the facial putty entirely.

Cyrano does have a big nose, everyone onstage comments on it, he is emotionally crippled by it, but we don't see it. And so, like the elephant in the room, it looms even larger for being invisible.

The second great set-piece of the play is the balcony scene in which, hidden by darkness, Cyrano feeds the tongue-tied Christian the eloquent and poetic language with which to woo Roxanne, ultimately taking over and saying the words for him. (McAvoy gets a valid and deserved laugh by imitating the accent Eben Figueiredo had been using as Christian)

McAvoy captures what too few actors playing Cyrano realise that for all its comedy this scene is intensely erotic and really about the unbearable mix of ecstasy and frustration Cyrano feels in being able to speak his feelings for Roxanne out loud.

It is a heartbreaking scene, made all the more effective by McAvoy's restraint in not over-milking the pathos.

And that is another innovation by actor and director. Cyrano has traditionally been played in the grand manner, but McAvoy dominates the play through the counter-intuitive device of underplaying.

It is because the character works hard to maintain an unruffled exterior that he seems so much stronger and magnetic than those around him, and it is because the actor generally avoids big showy effects that we catch every small indicator of the emotions Cyrano is working so hard to disguise.

It doesn't all work. While Eben Figueiredo's Christian is no more dense and ultimately irrelevant than most, Anita-Joy Uwajeh makes Roxanne's repeated insistence that her lover woo her in pretty language sound more like a poetry groupie than a woman in love.

In spite of her attractive modern personality, this Roxanne seems particularly shallow and unworthy of Cyrano's lifetime of devotion.

And by completely rewriting the play's final scene to bring it in keeping with the modern setting, Martin Crimp loses much of the exquisite autumnal beauty of the original.

In all, though, far more works than doesn't in this richly inventive adaptation, a laugh in the faces of those purists who would never allow any tampering with a classic.

I have no doubt that somebody somewhere is at this moment working on a hip-hop Hamlet, and this triumphant Cyrano makes me unable to say with certainty it would be a bad idea.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review - Cyrano De Bergerac - Playhouse Theatre 2019
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