Last year I saw Glyn Maxwell’s adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac, put together by a local group in my area. Maxwell’s version isn’t written in verse, except, obviously, when characters read poetry – it’s naturalistic, and feels like a drama. Martin Crimp’s adaptation, which was broadcast live to cinemas last Thursday, does the opposite. It pays homage to Edmond Rostand’s original by bringing the story to life with poetry, humour, and wacky anachronistic humour. Director Jamie Lloyd has done something unique, and I have a feeling there won’t be anything quite like it for a while.
As the curtains open at London’s Playhouse Theatre, the strange setting for the next two hours is established pretty quickly. The characters are in modern dress, yet we’re frequently told that it’s the late seventeenth century. This is usually in a cheeky and knowing way, sometimes even with a glance at the audience. I should also say that the dialogue is in quite strict verse, frequently rhyming. Occasionally there’s a beatboxer in the back providing rhythm – which isn’t a cheap attempt to get down with the kids, but a welcome musical accompaniment. It may be a shock at first, we soon find ourselves sitting back and letting it wash over us.
The general structure of the performance lies somewhere between poetry slam and rap battle. Although all actors have face mics, there is a hand-held mic that gets passed back and forth, like in 8-Mile’s final scene. Set to Rostand’s original story, this is ceaselessly entertaining, because we’re constantly wondering how the next part of the story will play out.
The story of Cyrano De Bergerac isn’t antiquated in the slightest; it fits perfectly with the modern setting – even though, technically, we’re still in the seventeenth century. An ugly man with a talent for words uses a beautiful man as a mouthpiece to woo the woman he loves. It’s 90s rom-com material, but it also echoes a few Shakespearean comedies. This malleable story, to use a cliché, was made for a hip-hop backdrop. With the emphasis on the wordsmith, rhythm and rhyme, I’m surprised it’s taken this long.
James McAvoy, who has previously worked with Lloyd in 2013’s Macbeth, takes the lead role. Unlike many before him – perhaps almost all before him – he avoids the prosthetic nose, and appears just as himself. This contradicts the narrative somewhat, because, as Michael Billington has said in The Guardian, he’s probably the best-looking man on stage. The frequent jokes about his nose – Cyrano’s most famous feature – don’t make any sense. But this superficial complaint can easily be forgiven; there are references to Steve Martin movies in 1640 – it’s not supposed to make sense.
Nose aside, McAvoy plays a convincing Cyrano. Just as in love with words as he is with his muse Roxane, he tries to be fearless but can’t contain his insecurity. He duels his enemies with words and rhymes – not a sword in sight in this production – yet quivers into a shy mess when Roxane first approaches him. Anita-Joy Uwajeh plays a strong Roxane; as the object of two men’s attention, she spits fire at the idea of women as objects. Explicit feminist views are another anachronistic feature of Crimp’s adaptation; the words “gender fluidity” are spoken at one point. Uwajeh manages to push these ideas forward through Roxane’s love of words, and she’s hilarious when Christian doesn’t manage to meet her high standards. Christian, Cyrano’s love rival, is played by Eben Figueiredo as a charming young cadet, new to Paris, words, and love. He naively accepts Cyrano’s offer to write and speak for him; a scene in which they swap accents is hilarious, and reveals the acting talent of both Figueiredo and McAvoy.
Rostand’s original play is famous for, through translation, bringing the word “panache” into the English Language. That word is knowingly used a few times in this production, but this bit of trivia is ironic here because the whole company pull it off with such panache.
Cyrano De Bergerac is at the Playhouse Theatre until the 29th February.