Review – Cyrano de Bergerac, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th April 2015

Cyrano de BergeracI’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.

Nigel BarrettThen 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?

Rehearsal 1So, 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. Rehearsal 2Roxane 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.

Rehearsal 3It’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.

Rehearsal 4It’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.

Nigel Barrett and John Paul ConnollyIt’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. Nigel Barrett and Chris JaredWe 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).

George Potts and Nigel BarrettFor 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.

EnsembleThere 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. CyranoI 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.

Chris Jared and EnsembleThere 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.

Cath WhitefieldI 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.

Cath Whitefield as RoxaneFor 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).

Cath Whitefield and Chris JaredSo, 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!

Review – Catch 22, Northern Stage, Oxford Playhouse, 10th June 2014

Catch 22Whether you’ve read the book or not, everyone knows the concept. You’ve got a problem, but you can’t solve it because the solution is the problem: that’s Catch-22. In Joseph Heller’s fantastic book, set during the Second World War, you can be discharged from the armed forces if you’re crazy. The trouble is, you have to apply for the discharge, which in itself proves you’re not crazy. Therefore you won’t get discharged. Simples.

Daniel AinsworthYossarian is the Everyman figure coming to terms with life as a Bombardier in the American forces, desperate to be sent home because of his paranoia about everyone and everything wanting to kill him. Weaving in and out of his life are his military comrades and superiors, and it’s his relationships with these people and his confrontations with authority that provide the main narrative of the book. A lot of it is surreal and ludicrous, and a lot of it is rather repetitive, which gives the novel a great sense of irony, but sadly these aspects don’t transfer that well to the stage.

Philip ArdittiDespite the fact this is Catch-22 (the play)’s first ever UK tour, produced by Northern Stage, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen it. Heller adapted it himself in 1971 but it never had a proper commercial release. However, some time around 1980, it was performed by students from Brasenose College Oxford, and I went to see it, because my friend Andy was playing Major Major. Very funny he was too, jumping in and out of windows in his constant quest to avoid responsibility. Alas, I don’t have any other memories of it, but I remember quite enjoying it, although it was way too long.

Geoff ArnoldBack to 2014. Entering the Oxford Playhouse, on first glance it’s a very impressive set, largely featuring the shell of a bomber aircraft which they act in and around. However, the aircraft takes up so much space that it limits the opportunities for the cast to move around the stage freely, and where they do use parts of the aircraft as the scenery, although it’s rather clever, it doesn’t seem very natural to me. There’s a central acting space – the internal floor of the aircraft – that is on an adverse camber, and not particularly useful either in dimensions or in its angle. I think they’ve fitted the action to go with the set rather than design a set that suits the action – a “tail wagging the dog” scenario. It also means that there’s quite a lot of action that takes place at the extreme edges of the stage, which unless you’re seated centrally in the audience, you might not get to see.

Victoria BewickYou really can’t escape the length of the show. Three and a quarter hours. On a warm Spring night in the Oxford Playhouse with the air-con only working intermittently, that’s a form of torture. You can just about get away with three hours if it’s a musical, when you’ve got the variation of content and a sense of stop-start with each song that allows you to break away from your concentration every so often. But with a play? No. Not unless you’re making a deliberate point, like the National Theatre’s uncut Hamlet in 1976 with Albert Finney. No one ever does Shakespeare nowadays without a little shaving off the edges – it’s just too long otherwise. I went to see that Hamlet as part of a school party – it started at 7pm and finished at 11. At the time it was the “show to see” for the very reason that there were no cuts; its glory was in its completeness. But with Catch-22, I guess Heller just loved his book too much to abridge it further. Like a lovely rose, it needs a damn good pruning. Whilst the repetition in the speeches and plot may well accurately reflect the repetition in the book, I found the constant circular conversations, where characters repeat back the words they hear to the person who said them, frankly boring on stage.

Simon DarwenMany of the scenes are quite short and fast, presumably because there’s a lot of book to get through, which I also felt made it feel a bit rushed, and lacking in depth. Apart from Philip Arditti’s Yossarian, who is an almost constant presence on the stage, I didn’t really engage emotionally with many of the characters. That’s not to say you don’t get to know them – you do. Colonel Cathcart’s belligerence and double standards are very nicely portrayed by Michael Hodgson, Geoff Arnold captures the gentle Chaplain’s insecurities extremely well, and Daniel Ainsworth makes Nately’s idealism and decency very clear and strangely moving. But the whole show does suffer from the fact that there are so many characters portrayed by a handful of actors that inevitably a lot of it becomes a blur.

Michael HodgsonA few scenes really stood out for their dramatic or comic impact – I loved the scene where Yossarian was interviewed by the psychiatrist (Michael Hodgson again on cracking form) who clearly has more mental issues than his patient; and was amused (as I always am) by Major Major’s insistence on having no one enter his office whilst he’s at work, a nice mixture of the sane and insane subtly conveyed by David Webber’s thoughtfully understated performance. But there were other times where I felt the necessary impact was lacking – the constant knife attacks on Yossarian by Nately’s Whore, for example, seemed unthreatening, and, in the final scene, extremely underwhelming. There’s also a scene where Yossarian, just in his boxers, is sitting on top of the plane with Milo, discussing the potential market for chocolate covered cotton as a snack. Whilst some members of the audience were howling with laughter at this, I’m afraid it completely passed me by. Anyway, I have further suspicions about this scene, see ahead for details.

Liz KettleMy overall reaction to the production is that Catch-22 is probably best left as a novel. It’s a very worthy project and a lot of effort has clearly gone into recreating the spirit of the original on stage, but I’m not sure it’s really worth it. Probably Joseph Heller is the chief problem here – the play is just too long, and the book has too many minor characters that appear in the stage adaptation resulting in a feeling more of confusion than elucidation. I’m afraid a few people sat near me didn’t return after the interval and one lady actually left halfway through the second act, which is a slightly odd time to walk out, although I can imagine a number of reasons why she might have done so. After it finishes its run at Oxford, it still has Derby and Richmond to visit. If you’re going, I hope you enjoy it and I wish you luck.

Christopher PriceP. S. I’m going to put two and two (plus another two) together, and may or may not come up with six or something completely different; let’s see how it adds up. The first “two”: I was really surprised to find such a large number of schoolchildren in the audience. It looked as though several classes had come together for an evening at the theatre. Maybe it’s a set text and therefore will attract school trips. They were reasonably well behaved, so that wasn’t an issue. But they formed a significant percentage of the audience, and many of them looked pretty young to me. The second “two”: there’s an information note on the Oxford Playhouse website regarding this production that simply reads: “Age guidance 14+ contains some nudity” – well, there was no nudity in the performance I saw. And the third “two”? That scene on top of the plane that I felt lacked an impact. It started off with Yossarian at the edge of the stage, visibly getting an idea in his head, and then determinedly and purposefully undressing, chucking his clothes on the floor in a rampage – but then he went no further than his boxers, and climbed up on top of the plane; I believe, in the book, he sits naked in a tree. He had his conversation with Milo about chocolate cotton, and then that scene merged into the next one, with Doc Daneeka and his staff, where Yossarian donned a hospital gown over his boxers; and then that scene merged into yet another, now without the gown again, where he’s conversing with his girlfriend whilst she intimately caresses his upper torso. If my memory serves me right, then we snapped into the interval.

David WebberMy suspicion is that this performance was effectively censored, possibly because of the large number of under 14s in the audience, and that this was the “nudity” scene. Now, I’m not overly worried about not getting to see Mr Arditti in the buff, but what I am worried about is that this becomes a bowdlerized version of the artistic vision of the production, and if so it totally compromises the integrity of the entire production in my eyes. If they can do that, who knows to what length they will sacrifice their vision to attract the ticket costs of a younger audience. For one thing, at what point would he normally have put clothes on again? For the hospital scene? For the girlfriend scene? If that girlfriend scene normally takes place with his wearing nothing it puts a very different complexion on the audience’s perception of their relationship. And if the nudity was censored, was anything else? Did they remove swear words for example? Were any gestures changed? It’s like going back to the days of the Lord Chamberlain except that it’s the production company wielding the red pen. Once you start playing with a show to adapt it for different audiences, and not being open and honest about it, then you’re sinking in very muddy waters. As you can guess, censorship is one of my pet hates – in fact stage censorship was the subject of my postgrad research. I tweeted Northern Stage to ask these questions, but sadly haven’t had a reply. If two and two and two make six, I am left to conclude that there was something definitely afoot with Tuesday night’s show. However, if two and two and two make five, maybe the creative team have changed it permanently, deciding it works better this way. If you know, please tell me!