FringeReview UK 2020
Directed by Jamie Lloyd, translated and adapted by Martin Crimp, with Set and Costume Design by Soutra Gilmour, lit by Jon Clark. Sound Design and Composition’s by Ben & Max Ringham. Polly Bennett’s Movement Director with Fight Director Kate Waters.
Screen director Tony Grech-Smith relishes the chance to frame the box-set production in carefully gradated close-ups and occasional sweeps where the Playhouse’s stage allows a zoom on intimacy and conflict. Lighting Director Bernie Davis doesn’t lose the tang of this Brechtian theatre but lets nothing intrude around the stage. Conrad Fletcher’s sound is a discreet envelope, embracing the sonic explosion, a thrown voice, and whispering declarations. As usual, technical producer is Christopher C Bretnall.
Mon panache, the memorable last words of Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is what director Jamie Lloyd seizes by its scruff. Martin Crimp adapting and translating Rostand in fact banishes those last words but everywhere in this slam-inflected, rocking sometimes rocky adaptation is panache.
Crimp’s verse is magnificent, feral, tangy, contemporary, sometimes matting out the glossy beauty that aches in the original but searing, memorable in its strut and rhythmic attitude, delivered by someone who owns it all.
It works with occasionally jaw-dropping beauty, as in Cyrano’s speech (in NT Live, close-up) imitating the voice of tongue-tied Christian who’s meant to be wooing Roxanne, the woman both love. Roxanne has eyes for Christian alone. So undeclared, unsuspected, Cyrano of the mighty nose acts selflessly to bring the couple together.
Or does he? Cyrano’s meant to be the same age as the other two: he grew up playing with Roxanne, as we hear. I’ve yet to hear of a performance where he isn’t – like James McAvoy here – older, more worldly, sophisticated, commanding. Still, growing up together, more than his famed conk, suggests the Westermark Effect does for Cyrano: most don’t desire those they grow up with. They become sexually invisible. Such is Cyrano’s paradoxical fate, who himself bucks the Effect for Affect.
Lloyd and Crimp dig deep too. Cyrano – poet, proto-Moliere dramatist, soldier, enemy-creating-one-man-industry – really lived, his dates mirrored in the action taking place in 1640 and 1655. One 1978 study suggests he was gay, though nowhere else. This Cyrano edges desire and complex interactions with young Christian, who insults him and is saved only by Cyrano’s knowing Roxanne’s desire for the boy. ‘I love you’ says Cyrano to him later, and there’s something else he does people will have to make their own minds up about. Between men on the battlefield. Is this Cyrano more in love with himself in his words? There’s a sequence with a mirror at the start – blink at it, it’s gone.
Though if Cyrano’s onanistic (or to be prosily franker/just an intellectual wanker), this Roxanne’s another such, someone naturally aroused by physical beauty yet who has to be wooed even more by linguistic virtuosity, someone who makes the earth move with their tongue; scornful of the tongue-tied. Now where did she grow up with that idea?
Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s callow, clever Roxanne is preppy where it hurts running a repertoire of sassy, sexy feminist scorn and soul, growing up fast with dangers of battlefield and grief. Uwajeh’s character moves through infatuation – despite her best intellectual defence – to realizing emotions behind words matter even more. This has consequences when Christian realizes what’s occurring.
Eben Figueiredo’s Christian impresses in hesitating his own beauty, his mix of boyish braggadocio and wince, vulnerable courage and sudden sharp insights hurting him into poetry as he begins to understand: ‘The man with the nose /And the acres of highbrow wet-dream prose.’ ‘That’s good!’ responds Cyrano generously surprised.
Everywhere Lloyd and Crimp are at pains to tell the story: nakedly the narrative and nerve-exposed lyrical drive serve the lean brilliance of McAvoy’s title character and mesmerising delivery. This is the thing you take away. McAvoy’s fiery pillar of verse burns through this production so brightly that all around seems dark by comparison. Almost, but there’s superb performances from this ensemble. There has to be.
Since nothing distracts from words, even restricted movement and clothes. All sumptuary’s banished as we get 21st century caz-leather in a performance poetry bar or whatever works on our imaginary forces inside Soutra Gilmour’s blank buff-coloured box. It’s a thing of open mics, leads, hint of a bar with orange plastic seats. Brecht’s Baal would have relished it.
This might seem prologue – Seun Shot’s Theatre Owner is closing proceedings when Cyrano cashes his savings to keep it open. But this is it, bar white steps showing recumbent soldiers at the start of Act Two, a flash of ritual and romance. Gilmour’s costume design extends to Roxanne’s dungarees and a polo-neck shirt out of Paris 1968 for Tom Edden’s superbly tight-lipped De Guiche, chief villain. It’s lit by Jon Clark in the same fashion, often with a swimming dark engulfing everything. Sound design and composition by Ben and Max Ringham here takes in the grime world.
Michele Austin’s Leila Ragueneau – a role promoted in this version – is workshop-leader and authoritative mother in one, giving stillness a permission as she plants everything. Adam Best’s Le Bret – Cyrano’s ancient – is a military Leporello, chalking up the notches Cyrano’s slaughtered, maimed, warned off. Like Hamlet-mangling Adrian de Gregorian’s Montfleury who’s lucky just to have just his nib snipped in the first of McAvoy’s grime-sure beats, a blistering delivery of nasal insults. Which nose is a palpable hit. It’s so fast though you lose some of the original’s elegance – something Steve Martin (referenced by McAvoy) didn’t, in his happy-ending Roxanne. Not to mention Depardieu.
Nima Taleghani’s MC Ligniere almost rivals McEvoy’s verbal energy in these earlier sequences, though has to content himself as a terrific warm-up act. There’s roles here that make us want to see more – Kiruna Stamell’s Marie-Louise for instance, and Carla Harrison-Hobbs’ Denise. Trouble is, this poetry scene’s the only place where women can be inserted.
It’s at the opening we get much of Polly Bennett’s movement directing with Kate Waters on the fight sequences – promising more than we get.
Edden’s the reckoning McAvoy’s poet has to negotiate. Not just Nemesis but highlighting Cyrano’s self-destructive acts in his magnificent refusal of Cardinal Richelieu’s patronage (De Guiche being a nephew). But it’s this realist who grasps the suicidal delusions inside the free poet refusing to submit to censorship. He plays on it, admiring Cyrano’s killing of seven of 100 men De Guiche sends to finish him off. Edden’s menace modulates though, from scorn to mad magnificence on the battlefield. In Edden’s hands he’s briefly elevated to the hallucigenic refusals of Alec Guinness’s Colonel Nicholson from Bridge on the River Kwai, refusing water.
All through these energised performances, often bolted to their chairs staring straight out, there’s little to distract. This could easily transfer to radio: with no visuals to connect it can be gruelling to sit through 160 minutes of it. No energy drop sure, but little variety in pace either.
At the end, the climactic declaration is still moving as McAvoy and Uwajeh finally turn to each other to release a flood of love-inflected anger – this Roxanne’s rightly ferocious in stripping the faux-gallantries that thwarted them all. It’s this scene though that exposes the lack of spatial dimensions that give such weight and pathos to this finale. A lack of convenient shrubbery earlier we can live with.
Elsewhere, Sam Black’s Armand and hapless Priest is a study in doltage. Nari Blair-Mangat’s Valvert and Philip Cairns’ Jean-Paul impress later on and there’s strong support everywhere: Chris Fung’s Usher, and Ensemble players Vaneeka Dadhria, Mika Johnson, Brinsley Terence.
You sense a great idea – seizing relevance from a play itself in revolt against its times. Turning an anti-naturalistic drama of 1897 into a play workshop sounds almost axiomatic. To render a grime scene and still cite Corneille, Moliere, Racine and call it 1640/55 stretches the envelope. In the best and occasionally worst sense, this drama’s still playing in our heads. McAvoy though is peerless and his companions are Asterix-hot.