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A CurtainUp Review
Cyrano de Bergerac

Was that the nose that sank a thousand ships?
--- Cyrano de Bergerac
Cyrano de Bergerac
Claire Price as Roxanne and Stephen Rea as Cyrano
(Photo: Ivan Kyncl)
Howard Davies directs a new and lavish version of Cyrano de Bergerac for the Travelex £10 season at the National Theatre's Olivier. He has set his Cyrano in the nineteenth century, around the time when Edmond Rostand, the original French author and poet, wrote his fictional account of the legendary seventeenth century figure Cyrano de Bergerac. This has the advantage of being able to set the war scenes in the second act in the trenches of the First World War and the message about the boredom and unnecessary slaughter of warfare is well made.

Derek Mahon has written a new translation in rhyming couplets. I personally loved his lively and witty verse but it is vulgar in places and may be too populist for some academics and those of a genteel disposition. The effect is jolly and earthy. "Sir, Excuse us if we stare …. Less than a Cap Griz Nez (Grey Nose Cape), more of a Finistère." and "What will you use for cash?" rhyming with "Yes but what panache!" In the scene where a concealed Cyrano has to give Christian the words to woo Roxanne, Mahon has allowed Christian to mishear Cyrano's whispers so that what Christian says is crude and full of innuendo but cleverly sounds like Cyrano's romantic lines. The text is packed full of references to Shakespeare's plays; I kept on spotting phrases from Hamlet as Mahon plays with his audience.

There is more to the play than a man with great natural nobility, as opposed to aristocracy, with a extra large nose who falls for his cousin Roxanne (Claire Price) but aids the handsome, but dull and inarticulate, Christian (Zubin Varla) to court her. Cyrano is a plea for diversity, for that which is different to be tolerated and not condemned for its lack of uniformity. Besides the obvious lesson (dare I say as obvious as the nose on his face?) of not judging people by their appearance, there runs through the play Cyrano's unconventionality, his refusal to accept social convention. Of course his rebellion gets him into plenty of situations from which he has to use his dazzling swordmanship to extricate himself. Cyrano lists his adversaries, "Prejudice, Cowardice, Compromise and Stupidity."

William Dudley's set is, in the words of Howard Davies, "a sort of adult climbing frame". Certainly when I first saw this gantry and scaffolding on wheels, I thought building works. But when it has people draped from it at all levels, it looks more like the barricades of the musical Les Misérables. The Les Misérables reference is underlined by the cast dressed in nineteenth century French costume; in fact one of the extras high up could be Inspector Javert, and those French nuns with their exquisite head dresses provide a refuge for Roxanne after Christian's death. It is however a flexible set and the addition of two sweeping staircases deep into the Olivier's auditorium allow coming and going that mingles with the audience. The "Précieuses", those blue-stockinged French intellectual women of whom Roxannne is one, use the stairs to make a dramatic entry, their black masks heightening their mystery. Their arrival coincided with some latecomers being admitted which took my eye in an anachronistic moment.

Stephen Rea, the Irish actor, is as outstanding as Cyrano's nose is large. Sometimes he looks doleful like a large spaniel and he is usually very scruffily dressed. Rea handles the humour expertly and is well cast. Claire Price seems a solid and rather matronly Roxanne, wide eyed, intelligent but very slow to discover the truth. Zubin Varla looks very French, more like Napoleon than my idea of the physically beautiful Christian but he does stand out from the throng. The ensemble work hard at conveying nineteenth century atmosphere in the enthusiastic crowd set pieces.

There are scenes in Davies' Cyrano which are very much the large West End show. The fencing school is choreographed like a ballet, very showy, very stylised but maybe rather out of place. After Cyrano has calmed the nerves of the troops with soothing words about the pastoral idyll that is their home, Gascony, the battle scenes are full of smoke and sulphurous light with writhing balletic movement.

Howard Davies has explained that his concept is that Cyrano is the opposite of Pinochio in that his large nose compels him to tell the truth. Well if I am to be true to Cyrano, I must say that in this instance, the sum of all these ideas make a patchy whole. There are wonderful moments, notably when Cyrano in a non-amused way lists every prejudiced, and often humorous, reaction to his nose. But all too often it feels like an expensively staged play with musical numbers for a West End audience and the overblown detail obscures the play's noble theme. Editor's note: Julianne Boyd of Barrington Stage in the Berkshires will be offering yet another interpretation of Cyrano this summer. One of CurtainUp's earliest reviews of the play in New York featured Frank Langella who is currently appearing on Broadway in Match>.

Cyrano de Bergerac
Written by Edmond Rostand
In a new version by Derek Mahon
Directed by Howard Davies

Starring: Stephen Rea, Claire Price, Zubin Varla
With: Malcolm Storry, Anthony O'Donnell, Nick Sampson, Katherine Manners, Mark Bonnar, Pascale Langdale, Stephen Critchlow, David Collings, Mairead McKinley, Gregory Fox-Murphy, Katy Odey, Simon Merrells, Thomas Arnold, Dermot Kerrigan, William Rycroft, Daniel Tuite, Joanne Fong, Antonia Grove, Miranda Lind, Karl Sullivan, Stephen Berkley-White, Gildas Diquero, Tam Ward
Set Designer: William Dudley
Costume Design: John Bright
Movement and Dance: Christopher Bruce
Lighting Designer: Paul Anderson
Sound: Paul Groothuis
Music: Dominic Muldowney
Fight Director: William Hobbs
Running time: Two hours fifty minutes with one interval
Many seats available at £10 - season sponsored by Travelex
Box Office: 020 7452 3000
Booking to 24th June 2004.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 30th April 2004 performance at the Olivier, Royal National Theatre, South Bank, London SE1 (Tube/Rail: Waterloo)
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