Ah, Cyrano! Fighter, scholar, poet, maverick: ever since Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, set in an imagined musketeer-y 17c, he has been an archetype of reckless generosity. Last of the courtly-love serenaders, patron of all unrequited lovers who nobly plead their rival’s cause. No wonder stars from Jacobi to Kevin Kline have been delighted to slap on the rubber conk and do him honour.
Loving Roxane, but cursed with that immense red nose, Cyrano writes divine love-letters for the “comely but dumb” Christian , thus convincing her that her lover has a great soul. Cyrano brokers the marriage, and struggles with his feelings when (somewhat unconvincingly) she declares that the letters are so great she would love Christian for his soul even if he was ugly. He comforts her long widowhood, only to reveal accidentally in his lengthy, delirious, sword-waving death scene that the great soul was him all the time.
The play has become a musical and several versions. but this is the most famous: Anthony Burgess’ translation is partly in verse like the French alexandrine original and, unfortunately for us, is faithful to its extreme Gallic ornamental verbosity. The first hour of the 105-minute first half , despite the side-plot about Ragueneau the provisions man and the envious grandee Ligniere, provides nothing exciting except the ensemble of Gascon cadets in white fencing-gear shouting a lot. The word ‘gruelling’ should not occur to one in a theatre: if director Lorne Campbell irreverently took the Burgess by the horns and did some brisk telescoping, it might not do so.
It is set – play-within-a-play – not as per original in a hotel, but for some reason in a gymnasium where the ensemble put bits of costume over their white fencing-kit to express each part. I can’t say that the gym added anything: if you’re not going naturalistic, black curtains would do as well in such an excessively verbal and often static play. Comedy and feeling both improve, though , as Nigel Barrett’s Cyrano takes Chris Jared’s Christian in hand and dictates every swooning line for him to speak under Roxane’s balcony, saying her name swings like a brazen bell, etc. Christian wins his kiss and betrothal while the big distorted man sits grieving nobly in the shadow. At which point I must say that Barrett is absolutely tremendous in this title role: declamatory and dry by turns, physically commanding, every inch the warrior. No complaints there.
But despite the point well made in the programme about Burgess’ empathy with flawed, gallant extreme mavericks, there is something curiously out of tune about the play: more so than Shakespeare or Sophocles. The courtly-love trope, the idea of convincing a woman of your ‘genius’ by larding on intemperate praise, feels almost insulting even when filtered through French 19c cynical asides. Roxane’s eager demand that Christian’s stumbled “I love you” should be “embroidered with golden tapestries” is downright irritating.
Cyrano’s generosity – as evoked by Barrett – is moving, and the concept of the “panache” betokening his pure soul is well carried. We believe his “I am a tree, not high, not beautiful, but free”. Roxane is chirpily strong-willed and turns up on the very battlefield to join her lover; Cath Whitefield plays her very beguilingly in black tights, and achieves genuine dignity in the final fifteen-years-on scenes in the convent with sick impoverished old Cyrano. But a question kept rising in my head: “Do we need this play, in this style, here and now?” Not convinced.
box office BOX OFFICE 01604 624811 http://www.royalandderngate.co.uk to 25 April
A joint production with Northern Stage; runs in Newcastle from 29 April