The Theatreguide.London Review
Playhouse Theatre Winter 2019-2020
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.
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
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
It is a heartbreaking scene,
made all the more effective by McAvoy's restraint in not over-milking the
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.
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