Question: What does Speaker John Bercow say when he sees Cyrano de Bergerac in the House of Commons? Answer: The nose have it, the nose have it.
I’d like to apologise for that childish opening, but bear with me, gentle reader. Cyrano is normally all about the nose, but in Alexis Michalik’s Edmond de Bergerac, it doesn’t make an entrance until the final scenes. And that makes sense, because this brilliantly funny account of how Edmond Rostand might have written his famous tragicomedy is all about heart; love for one’s art, whether it be writing or acting, and how you have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous theatre managements in order to get your masterpiece on stage. It’s a wonderfully positive piece, where love finds its true course, hopeless wannabes find success, and even the villains are funny. So, really, the ayes have it, and in abundance.
Rostand is down on his uppers, but does have a magnificent patronne in the formidable shape of Sarah Bernhardt, who’s still a box-office draw despite edging towards her best-by date. She organises a meeting between him and Constant Coquelin, the famous thespian who’s been having legal wrangles with the Comédie Française. Although he hasn’t written anything for years, Rostand somehow impresses the Great Man, who commissions a comedy from him; first read-through tomorrow.
Thus comes the first of many nights where Rostand works round the clock, with encouragement from the manager of the Café Honoré, and support from his actor pal Léo. A serial womaniser, Léo introduces Rostand to his latest inamorata-in-waiting, Jeanne, and it’s through Rostand’s mentoring of Léo’s otherwise useless romantic small talk that he discovers the muse for Coquelin’s commission. But there’s an awful long way between that initial spark of creativity and Cyrano’s first night.
Edmond de Bergerac joins that small but very special group of works of art (whether it be play, book, music, etc) that tries to shed light on its own creative process – and they’re always packed with insight. The film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for example, intersperses the narrative of the story with scenes where the actors play themselves on set whilst making the self-same film. Elton John’s Your Song and Spandau Ballet’s True take us through the pains and motivations of the songwriter getting the words right. Edmond de Bergerac shows us the individual moments of inspiration that get transplanted into the, as yet, unwritten play; the personal relationships, the overheard arguments, other people’s fantastic one-liners that you just have to steal for your own work. By taking us through the creative process, it also emphasises the truth of what lies at the heart of the new created work. Have I lost you? Sorry, it’s one of my pet favourite things in art.
From Honoré’s opening Bonsoir, (to which we all replied) to his final introduction of the curtain call, that fourth wall is always open, and we’re willingly drawn into Rostand’s theatrical world. When an idea comes into his head, he confides it to us. We share in Coquelin’s knife-edge relationship with the law. We love it when the star, who never bothers with stage management’s health and safety warnings, plummets through the trap door. There’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that Rostand is always comparing himself with the ultra-successful Georges Feydeau, because the show is crammed with half farce/half slapstick moments. I also loved the inventive staging suggestions (the train sequences are all hilarious), the over-the-top Frenchy characterisations; and the surprise appearances of the likes of Anton Chekhov and Maurice Ravel. It reminded Mrs Chrisparkle of the fabulously successful revival of Mr Whatnot a few years ago; and with aspects of Noises Off, Kiss Me Kate and Nicholas Nickleby in there too.
It’s all performed at fantastic speed and pinpoint accuracy by a hugely likeable and talented cast of fourteen, playing something like fifty or sixty characters. At the still point in the turning world, Freddie Fox is outstanding as Rostand, clearly a devoted family man but unwittingly caught up in what looks like (to his wife at least) an illicit affair. Robin Morrissey is hilarious as the empty-headed matinée idol Léo, and Josie Lawrence uses all her fantastic vocal skills to create a very grande Bernhardt, a grumpy Duenna and a West Country prostitute who saves the day (in a number of ways).
Chizzy Akudolu gives great comic presence to the diva-ish Maria, Simon Gregor steals every scene as the camp couturier and the pompous hotel receptionist, whilst Nick Cavalière gives great support in a number of roles including (with Mr Gregor), Coquelin’s creditors, the two menacing Floury brothers. Delroy Atkinson is superb as always as the assertive Honoré and the ham old actor, Harry Kershaw is terrific as the awful actor Jean, David Langham makes for a wonderfully pompous Feydeau, Sarah Ridgeway a kindly, put-upon Rosemonde, and Gina Bramhill a sparkling yet spikey Jeanne.
Top of the shop is a superb performance by Henry Goodman as the ebullient and vain Coquelin, the demanding boss who needs his script double quick and insists on a duel scene because he’s quite handy with a rapier. Even though he’s potentially difficult and a nightmare to work with, we support him absolutely in his attempts to see Cyrano on stage. It’s a lovely comic performance but with plenty of serious tinges. But everyone gives a performance of top-quality commitment, and the result is an evening of sheer delight.
Michalik’s original production opened in Paris in 2016 and is still packing them in after 800 performances. Of course, Cyrano de Bergerac is second-nature to the Parisien theatregoer; he’s like our Hamlet, but with added proboscis. This short touring production – the play’s UK première – courtesy of Birmingham Rep, in a translation by Jeremy Sams, still has dates at Cambridge and Richmond to follow, and I’m sure will do a lot to raise the profile in this country of not only Cyrano, but also Alexis Michalik. A marvellous tribute to Rostand and a fabulously funny night out. Don’t miss it!