Yup, you heard it. London’s hottest ticket is a middle-aged white man rapping. That man is James McAvoy: booted and buzzcut like a Glaswegian squaddie and stripped to the waist. For nearly three hours he spits fire, spraying lyrical pearls at his enemies, nailing rap battles and chucking his battered heart beneath the feet of the woman he loves, Roxane.
McAvoy is Cyrano: winner in words, loser in love – and he’s shit hot. And writer Martin Crimp and director Jamie Lloyd have pulled off something improbably brilliant to get him here: taking Edmund Rostand’s frilly old French verse drama about a mournful musketeer with a massive nose and reinventing it as, basically, ‘Hamilton’ for Europeans.
Writers are fighters and the word is everything in this firecracker show about passion, rejection, and the crazy genius of the spoken word. The rapiers, intrigue and censorship of Cardinal Richelieu’s Paris, circa 1640, are modernised as razor-sharp banter about love, sex, and – nudge, wink – cultural appropriation. Duels – like the one where Cyrano massacres a crap actor for massacring ‘Hamlet’ – are fought as rap battles or slam contests. And it all happens around a mic on a stage that’s mostly blank and white like an unwritten page.
Director Lloyd and designer Soutra Gilmour (also a hot ticket), have had the sense to get out of the way and strip everything back, to let the words and actors shine. And they dazzle. The Big Mac is backed up by a chorus of massively talented actors and beatboxers who look and feel like London now: brown, black, white, queer, wised up – with easy quick banter and a mad flow. There’s so much energy here, and it can switch in a beat from locker-room geez to earnest studenty debates. And there are plenty of laughs: especially from Tom Edden as the incompetent predator, De Guiche.
The plot is melancholy and ludicrous: ugly, brilliant Cyrano burns for his beautiful, smart cousin Roxane (a wonderfully strong Evelyn Miller), but she likes a pretty face, Christian (Eben Figueiredo), who can’t string a sentence together. Cyrano lends Christian the words to woo her, culminating here in a hilarious then heartbreakingly intense scene at Roxane’s window, where McAvoy switches out of his usual hench Glaswegian and into Christian’s soft south London, faking it so his friend can make it, but also revealing his true feelings.
And as for the nose? No Gerard Depardieu-style extensions here. This Cyrano’s ‘ugliness’ is a metaphor or maybe even an artist’s blessing and curse. It makes him a monster but also special. When invited to sell out and become a published playwright, he says he needs to ‘isolate me so I can create’. Which brings us to another crux: adaptor Martin Crimp, a bleak, formally experimental playwright who is, as they say, ‘big in Germany’ has, in his sixties, written an absolute banger in his startling adaptation of Rostand. It’s a pleasure to see it brought back to life by McAvoy and co following its inaugural 2019 run, playing a short West End season ahead of dates in Glasgow and New York. If this is the sound of middle-aged white guys rapping, then maybe more of them should give it a go.