‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ review
Time Out says
James McAvoy shines as the lovelorn cavalier in this post-‘Hamilton’ take on the iconic French rhyming play
‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ returns for a short 2022 run, with James McAvoy leading a partially recast production. This review is from 2019.
It’s Cyrano de Berger-rap. It’s James rap-Avoy. It’s… perhaps more accurate to say the rhythms of Martin Crimp’s new version of classic French play ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ are closer to the languid cadences of performance poetry than actual hip hop. But undoubtedly this is your first opportunity to listen to Mr Tumnus spitting verse.
And James McAvoy is great in the role: sure, the idea of updating ‘Cyrano’ in this fashion is a bit yikes on paper. But in fact, this is a ferociously good revival from Jamie Lloyd, that almost totally reclaims, reinvents and reinvigorates a play so engrimed in period camp that it can sometimes feel like a chore to even remember it exists.
ICYMI: Edmund Rostand’s 1897 drama about a big-nosed, hyper-poetic French soldier who finds himself in a very complicated love triangle with his cousin Roxane and good-looking but tongue-tied fellow soldier Christian is written in rhyming verse.
And with the hindsight of Martin Crimp’s scorching adaptation, it is blindingly clear that modern rhymes offer a clear and exciting way forward. Lloyd and Crimp have conjured up something pretty remarkable, the cut and thrust world of seventeenth-century France reinvented as a series of rap battle royals, or grand poetry slams.
Although stripped to the bone aesthetically – Soutra Gilmour’s stark set is just a white stage and few mics – the first half in particular is vivid and teeming with ideas and life, as McAvoy’s lovelorn loon Cyrano, Eben Figueiredo’s nice-but-dim Christian and Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s sassy, self-absorbed Roxane spar joyously.
Crimp’s take has a wonderful drollness to it: at one point Cyrano engages in a verbal dual, and cheerily points out that he almost killed a man with just words; during the iconic wooing scene he switches to a south London accent, in imitation of Christian, on whose behalf he is pouring honey into Roxane’s ear.
It is objectively hilarious to hear McAvoy – whose laconic Glaswegian flow is blessedly cringe free, and indeed, rather charismatic – suddenly break into the exact thing you might have worried this would be. But also: you soon forget that because his declarations of love rapidly become beautifully, horribly, air suckingly intense.
That’s the key to this production: after all the arched eyebrowed swagger – dare I say panache? – of the first half, it’s the second that really destroys you, a depiction of three people unable to honestly articulate their feelings for each other, but unable to exist apart; for a guy that’s been something of a figure of fun, Figueiredo’s Christian is absolutely heartbreaking come the end.
I’ve not mentioned the nose! The extremely handsome James McAvoy wears no prosthetics; instead it’s kind of a nose of the mind – only said to be there. This works: it’s not very important that Cyrano has a big honker (he was a historical figure and the evidence he really has a big nose is hysterically thin), simply that we have a plausible explanation for his low self-esteem.
Beyond the central trio, there’s a large, diverse, once again extremely handsome and very talented ensemble – it’s not a spoiler to say that the production ends with a banging beatbox solo from ensemble member Vaneeka Dadhria.
Lloyd’s Cyrano has an austere, angular, edgy aesthetic, and if it is fundamentally a fact that it’s the creation of two middle-aged white men with an (admittedly stacked) middle-aged white star, then they have made it all look and sound just right. It doesn’t have the euphoric effortlessness and virtuoso authenticity of ‘Hamilton’; but it’s not a million miles off, and the fact the two shows can even be discussed in the same breath is a testament to the fact that Lloyd and co have cooked up something pretty remarkable.