In a free reworking of “Cyrano”, it takes pizzazz to rewrite French alexandrines in the manner of Eminem
How far can a great drama depart from its origins in search of new audiences, while still laying claim to being the same work? It’s a question that always hangs over attempts to lure new audiences to the classics by giving them a shot in the textual arm, more often than not accustomed by gender-shifted casting. It would be fustian to resist on grounds of an obligatory faithfulness to the original intentions. Outside Denmark, we don’t expect Hamlet to be played by a strapping Dane and Sarah Bernhardt was strutting her stuff as the introvert Prince back in 1899.
There’s also a consideration for theatres that dusting down the more exacting classics, like some of the great French plays written in Alexandrine verse, requires a bit of spring-cleaning to pack a punch with modern audiences.
Martin Crimp’s adaptation of the nineteenth-century Cyrano (as in de Bergerac) is a story of the interwoven securities of romance, seductions of language — and darker psychology of one man pretending to be another in a quest for erotic satisfaction. A building block of modern French theatre, it earned Edmond Rostand an instant Legion of Honour, handed out by the French finance minister on its opening night in 1897.
The Jamie Lloyd company’s version for the Playhouse theatre in London with James McAvoy in the lead honours the original in form but also sends up its camper aspects with glee. Crimp is a leading member of the “in-yer-face” school of British theatre writing, (which, for anyone not keeping up with such things, is the 2000s version of the Angry Young Men of the 1960s but a lot ruder to the audience). He also has a fatal attraction for “difficult” classics, from Euripides’s Phoenician Women, about the family fall-out from the Oedipus story, to a recent erotic overhaul of Samuel Richardson’s eighteenth-century epistolary novel Pamela in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other. Pedants might object that the latter result starring Cate Blanchett at the National Theatre last year was an all-round disaster.
Overall, the action and verse romp along here merrily with McAvoy in fine form
But Crimp returns to more secure form with this free reworking of Cyrano. The scene is set in a kind of Hoxton version of 1640s swashbuckling Paris with rap music, beat boxes and the poetry contest on open mic night. It takes some pizzazz to rewrite French alexandrines in the manner of Eminem. We get some slightly tired tropes amid the dazzle — the lambasting of VIP sponsorship is a bit of an industry standard these days, though not so far removed from the frustration of writers in the Cardinal Richelieu era, trapped between courtly dependence and fear of the censor.
Like a lot of social criticism turned up to top volume, it all goes a bit Corbyn-y when there is a suggestion that banks buying front row seats for clients is the first step on the road to censorship. Given that political plays at the moment have a remarkable habit of turning out works with a Rebecca Long Bailey view of the free market, that’s a bit of a stretch.
Overall, the action and verse romp along here merrily with McAvoy in fine form as the loquacious swordsman who first helps with a deception and then cannot escape its repetitive lure.
We need to talk about McAvoy’s nose, a case of the theatre prop that is not there. Literalists found this a bit of a flaw in a tale which turns on a character whose fatal physical flaw is an over-large proboscis. It is, after all, the feature which robs him of the sexual confidence to woo Roxane and attracts the macho mockery of parvenu Christian in a rapper’s street battle: “The man with the nose/And the acres of highbrow wet-dream prose.”
An athletic McAvoy, clad in a tight black jerkin, is just as attractive here as the young blood Christian (Eben Figueiredo). Some of my co-critics, in thrall to the memory of Gerard Depardieu’s 1990 film version, found this to be a credibility-stretching matter. Frankly, if you get two devilishly handsome actors slugging it out verbally and physically over the evening, I am not one to ask for my money back.
It’s good to see such a fine, energetic Scottish actor with a yen for verse-speaking return to an ambitious performance after so long trapped in the lucrative cryogenic world of the X-Men franchise. With an ear for verse and swagger, even in his death throes, McAvoy conveys the devotion to flinty love interest Roxane (Anita-Joy Uwajeh) and loyalty (or perhaps more) to Christian in a shifting ménage à trois.
If it doesn’t get theatre-award nominations, I will be astonished. Soutra Gilmour’s clever, spare staging has benches at different levels to emulate the shadowy pockets, and the scene in which Cyrano expands on Christian’s love declarations, adding his own devotionals, occurs with the trio seated facing different ways in an S-shaped love seat — connected, but isolated from each other.
Dispensing with the frills and Frenchified accents is a boon to a play which can teeter towards self-parody, but has psychological shrewdness at its heart as well as thwarted romance. So let’s not fret about the length of a nose. Poetry, fighting and sex, it turns out, still steal the show. Just ask the rappers.
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