I’m not sure, gentle reader, how I’ve reached the grand old age of (insert grand old age here) and still be ignorant of Cyrano de Bergerac. I’d never seen the play, or any of the film adaptations, never even read anything about him. All I knew of him was that he was French and had a big nose. So I was delighted to see that Anthony Burgess’ translation of Rostand’s 1897 play was to be part of this year’s Made in Northampton season at the Royal and Derngate; finally, a chance to fill in that particular knowledge gap.
Then last Friday I saw some worrying comments on social media, following the production’s first preview. Incredibly long, people said; very boring. People not only left at the interval, they left before the interval (a very bad sign). “Take your pyjamas” someone suggested. I broke the news to Mrs Chrisparkle that we were due for a bumpy evening. She fixed me with that “oh great, I work hard all day and then you subject me to a tedious night at the theatre as a reward” look. But I had managed to convince her not to leave at the interval of The Secret Adversary recently, on the basis that she could simply nod off during the second act if she wanted. Relationships are all about compromise, aren’t they?
So, if like me, you are an Ignoramus de Bergerac, let me outline the story. Cyrano is a noble soldier, a brave fighter, a sweet-talker, a poetic muse and morally ever so decent. All the things that would suggest a fantastically lucky life were it not for his nose. It’s a nose that knows no bounds. A conqueror of a conk. I’m not being nose-ist, Cyrano himself looks his nose straight in the face and tells it like it is. You could attempt to butter him up with flattery about his appearance and he’ll knock you down saying he has a proboscis as big as a mosque is. (Yes, be prepared for a lot of verse or worse as well). With that ugly protuberance he lacks the confidence to settle down with the lady of his dreams, the lovely Roxane (a distant cousin but they seemed to do that sort of thing in those days). But she comes to him and expresses her love – and he can’t believe his luck. Rightly so, because it’s not for him but for an eye-catching lad called Christian, a new recruit in Cyrano’s company. Roxane asks her old pal to look after him, to which Cyrano, being the decent chap he is, and also unable to do anything to upset Roxane, agrees. Christian though, is all trousers and no mouth. He hasn’t a poetic voice or eloquent tone in his brain or body, so when he has to write words of love to Roxane, he hasn’t a clue how to go about it. So Cyrano writes Christian’s letters to Roxane with all the flowery eloquence she seeks; thereby both strengthening her relationship with his rival in love, whilst at the same time providing an outlet for Cyrano’s own passion. Cyrano even engineers a situation whereby Roxane and Christian can marry; but then Cyrano, Christian and the rest of the troop are called to war. Will love, or indeed any of them, survive? I’ve already told you too much.
It’s a long story, it’s an epic story. Rostand goes into incredible detail about many side issues that have very little bearing on the main events, although they do enhance the characterisations and give extra background to the meat of the plot. The Burgess translation came out in the early 70s, and I’m wondering if long plays were a thing of the time. I remember seeing (with enormous excitement) Albert Finney’s Hamlet at the National in 1976, notable for the fact that they acted out the entire text. Not one interjection was cut. It started at 7pm and ended sometime after 11pm. In comparison, the three hours ten minutes spent in the audience for this production of Cyrano de Bergerac (co-produced with Northern Stage, based in Newcastle) is lightweight. However, tastes change; we live in busier and more immediate times; and with advancing years, the ability to sit for that length of time without one’s buttocks crying out for mercy declines. Or, maybe it’s a Northern Stage thing. The only other production I’ve seen by them is last year’s Catch-22, almost exactly the same length, and equally trying on the brain and the body, for the same reasons.
It’s a tricky one. You really do feel, as an audience member, that the whole thing is simply too long, and that surely they could have made a few more cuts to bring things to a head a bit more quickly. However, I sympathise with the production team. When you consider what parts you might exclude you do run the risk of removing essential elements from the play. The opening scene contains the most waffle – all that scene setting in the theatre is largely irrelevant to the rest of the play, and I think you could lose a lot of it without a problem. I can also think of a couple of scenes where long speeches could have been made shorter and we’d still have got the gist – but we would have lost some beautifully manicured language as a result. I don’t know if this current version already has some cuts. But what is one to do? Few people flinch (indeed, most are grateful) when modern productions of Shakespeare make generous excisions from the original text. Perhaps it’s because Cyrano is less frequently performed than your average Shakespeare that we feel the need to experience it in its Full Monty completeness. I genuinely don’t know the answer! But it really is, and feels like, a long play.
It’s written in verse too, which has its own challenges for the viewer. Again, comparing with Shakespeare, we’re used to the rhythms of poetry in drama, but it’s only in some of the comic plays that his rhymes actually rhyme. Here we have a lot of rhyming in a story that’s essentially tragic. If rhyming couplets are the kind of thing that do not make your heart go ping, you’ll find the play will quickly pall and lose the desire to see it all. We did have some non-returners after the interval last night. I thought some people wouldn’t be back, for the second act of Cyrano de Bergerac. That’s a shame because the second half, makes you cry and laugh, more than the first does, if you get my drift, cuz. Watch those rhymes that don’t end, a sentence – they can send, your brain into meltdown anticipating, the next word. Right? (That’s enough berating).
For the most part the language is actually very beautiful. It’s thoughtful, sensuous, inventive, and exquisitely constructed. Like Shakespeare to Othello, Rostand/Burgess gives all the best lines to Cyrano, and Nigel Barrett’s voice coats them with honey whilst still injecting them with superb sense and emphasis, not merely wallowing in lavish recital. His voice makes a great contrast with the Tyneside accents of the ensemble, setting him apart from the rabble and underlining his nobility. As a Northamptonite, it did strike me a bit odd at first that all these people sounded like Geordies, but actually, as the soldiers are mainly Gascons, adrift in another part of France, it’s absolutely appropriate that they should share a recognisably different accent.
There is a bizarre, unexpected twist to the language at the end of Act One, where Cyrano suddenly shifts into Carry On mode, with a heap of double entendres and sexual mimework – a Kenneth Williams-style “ooh Matron” would not have been out of place. But then this is a production of surprises. It starts, not with a bang, but with a warm but modest “hello”; it is interspersed with occasional rap numbers. Not the kind of professional rap that would win you a MOBO award, more the kind of thing I might embarrass myself with after a heavy night on the Shiraz. That cheeky mixture of the modern with the archaic gives it a somewhat eccentric style, which we both rather appreciated. The setting is a gymnasium, and when you enter the auditorium you witness various fencers practising their lunges and parry-ripostes. I rather liked the unusual staging, although I didn’t so much care for the brown fabric dummies that constantly littered the stage – with its stylised language and setting I thought the play deserved something more stylish than that. I also enjoyed the occasional overspill of the action into the stalls; a device maybe, but it really does help the audience and the play to integrate. As the play progresses, the extraneous setting, surprise gimmicks and additional characters seem to get fewer and fewer, focussing your attention on the true nub of the play – the unorthodox threesome between Cyrano, Roxane and Christian. The final resolution was incredibly moving and I absolutely believed in everything these characters did – I almost forgot it was a play.
There was some damn good acting going on out there too. We both really enjoyed the technically excellent performance of George Potts as both the vain and manipulative De Guiche and the open-hearted Ragueneau – two very different characters with contrasting bearing and voices, and for whom Mr Potts frequently had to quick-change as they appear in rapid succession. John Paul Connolly nicely captures the excesses of Lignière and loyalty of Le Bret in roles that don’t otherwise have a huge amount of individuality in them. Chris Jared is impressive as Christian, nicely mucking up Cyrano’s attempts to woo Roxane vicariously by clamouring for a kiss and credibly conveying his sense of dismay that he isn’t a more refined suitor. Mrs C particularly enjoyed his realisation that he didn’t want Roxane to love him as an imitation-Cyrano, he wanted her to love him for the numbskull he genuinely is. Think of the problems Joey Essex would have courting Victoria Coren, and you can see how relevant this story still is today.
I really liked Cath Whitefield’s performance as Roxane, a delicate balance between the prim and the earthy; there’s a beautiful scene where she’s wide-eyed with excitement at telling Cyrano she has fallen in love with Christian. She really conveyed that sense of dangerous thrill and emotional satisfaction you get when you realise you’ve met The One. She’s also incredibly moving in the later scenes, frittering away her hours in recollection and coming to the final realisation of the truth about Christian’s letters. The ensemble, which features performers from the North scheme at Northern Stage, give very good support and play dozens of smaller roles. I particularly liked Kylie Ann Ford’s portrayal of Roxane’s chaperon, a busybody who is remarkably easily sidetracked; and Matt Howdon makes a terrific fop.
For a production of Cyrano to work, you have to have someone awe-inspiring as the lead actor. This production has it in droves, with a spell-binding performance by Nigel Barrett as Cyrano. Given the extent of his experience in his programme bio, I’m surprised we haven’t seen him before; but I’m delighted that we have now. He bestrides the stage like a Colossus, as someone once said; he’s one of those performers you just can’t take your eyes off – and not only because of the splendid way in which he sports his nose (I do hope it isn’t real.) He conveys absolutely Cyrano’s dichotomy of being fearless in war and vulnerable in love, and expresses all the elements of tragic heroism you could possibly wish for – one of the best performances by an actor we’ve seen in a long time. As we were walking home, I said that I’d really like to see Mr Barrett play Macbeth – I reckon he’d be perfect for the part. Mrs C said she’d like to see him as Lear – just one tragic insight into daughters and she said she’d be in floods of tears (although, to be fair, she always cries at King Lear anyway).
So, a production not without its cons, but also with some fantastic pros to balance it out. If only they could find a way of shortening it without losing its logical plot progression and elegant language it would be a 5 star show, no question. As it is, there’s still plenty to enjoy and get your teeth into. Clearly it’s a Marmite production; but if you go accepting that you will have to concentrate hard and long, and get a fidgety bottom into the bargain, then my guess is that you’ll have a great time. After it’s spent its three weeks in Northampton, the production goes to its other home in Newcastle until 16th May. A fascinating and thought-provoking start to the season!