‘He nose, you know!’: James McAvoy excels as a Cyrano de Bergerac for our contemporary age

United KingdomUnited Kingdom National Theatre Live – Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac: directed for the screen by Tony Grech-Smith at London’s Playhouse Theatre and broadcast to Everyman Cinema, Chelmsford, 12.3.2020. (JPr)

Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Roxane), Eben Figueiredo (Christian), & James McAvoy (Cyrano)
(c) Marc Brenner

Freely adapted by Martin Crimp
Director – Jamie Lloyd
Design – Soutra Gilmour
Lighting design – Jon Clark
Sound and Composition – Ben and Max Ringham
Fight direction – Kate Waters

Michele Austin – Ragueneau
Adam Best – Le Bret
Sam Black – Armand / Priest
Nari Blair-Mangat – Valvert
Philip Cairns – Referee
Tom Edden – De Guiche
Eben Figueiredo – Christian
Chris Fung – Usher
Adrian Der Gregorian – Montfleury
Carla Harrison-Hodge – Denise / Medic
James McAvoy – Cyrano de Bergerac
Seun Shote – Theatre Owner
Kiruna Stamell – Marie-Louis
Nima Taleghani – Ligniere
Anita-Joy Uwajeh – Roxane
Ensemble – Vaneeka Dadhria, Mika Johnson, Brinsley Terence

My recent exposure to James McAvoy was in BBC TV’s adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials where he was last seen heading into a parallel universe. McAvoy has just finished a sellout season at London’s Playhouse Theatre as Cyrano de Bergerac in Martin Crimp’s free adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play which was originally written in rhyming couplets. (There actually was a real Cyrano and Rostand fictionalised the broad outlines of his life.) Cyrano de Bergerac has been revisited over intervening years in various guises on stage, film (notably Steve Martin’s contemporary Roxanne and an Oscar-winning French version with Gerald Depardieu), TV, radio, and even as an opera. While I always knew of Cyrano de Bergerac all I had previously seen was Roxanne!

So, I watched this encore National Theatre Live showing with an open mind. Looking at the white box of Soutra Gilmour’s single set with its row of microphone stands I thought I was entering an alternate reality of my own, especially with director Jamie Lloyd’s rather over-populated opening to Rostand’s poetic universe. Act I was undoubtedly too long, but after a confusing start this modern dress Cyrano draws the audience in due mainly to several mesmeric performances and maintains an unrelenting grip of mind and heart over a 2¾ hour running time.

Despite the fact we are clearly not in 1640 France, when and where the original play is set, Cyrano is still the soldier poet in unrequited love with his cousin Roxane. He is socially awkward and subjected to body-shaming – as it is referred to today – because of his huge nose. When Roxane declares her love for a handsome new recruit, Christian, a compelling romantic triangle ensues. Christian may have the benefit of his good looks but is not very good with words and Cyrano is responsible for all the love letters he sends to Roxane, as well as, Christian’s verbal attempts to seduce her. France is at war with Spain and when the soldiers are sent to the frontlines Roxane pleads with Cyrano to look after Christian. The threat of war notwithstanding, Cyrano de Bergerac has a Scarpia-like villain in the haughty, sneering, politically ambitious, Comte de Guiche who also pursue Roxane. He represents the very worst of Cardinal Richelieu’s France with its pursuit of royal absolutism and rule with an iron fist. Add to this mix the codes of honour of the time, all the dueling and other acts of bravery, and – as is familiar from many similar plots down the years – the course of true love will not run smooth.

Obviously Rostand would not entirely recognise his verses in Crimp’s – still mostly rhyming – version which employs liberal use of swear words, hip-hop slang and rap in a setting where Lloyd has everyone mostly face out into the theatre for what becomes a very extended poetry slam with those watching as the judges. The cast is admirably diverse, not only ethnically but physically, and they wear an eclectic range of streetwear just as they would during rehearsals or out partying of an evening. McAvoy’s Cyrano emerges from the throng of performers involved in a reimagining of Shakespeare’s Hamlet; he has been seen with his back to the audience at a dressing room mirror at the rear of the stage. Self-worth is very much an overriding theme of what we subsequently see, McAvoy doesn’t wear a false nose – he doesn’t need to – this Cyrano believes he is ugly and is convinced Roxane cannot possibly love him. Witnessing his loneliness and estrangement from those around him as he endures their cruel barbs, we believe in Cyrano’s outer ugliness but also in the true nobility of human nature through his words and deeds.

The famous scene when Cyrano provides the words for Christian to woo Roxane is sublimely nuanced – especially in Tony Grech-Smith’s closeup direction for the cinema – despite the absence of the ‘traditional’ balcony and its replacement by some plastic chairs, with characters alternating facing forward or facing away. Displaying the ‘split personality’ of one man (Cyrano) disguised as another (the tongue-tied Christian) telling Roxane he loves her, with all the genuine feelings he has for her himself, results in an acting masterclass from McAvoy.

After the interval the lightheartedness of Act I gives way to the horrors of the Siege of Arras where darkness and death dominate the action. Two become one as the love rivals, Cyrano and Christian, kiss but (spoiler alert) there is no happy ending for either of them. With a final beautifully executed and heart-wrenchingly eloquent monologue from McAvoy, Cyrano dies denying till his very last breath the authorship of Christian’s final letter, whilst Roxane finally declares she loves him.

The three principal actors – McAvoy, Anita-Joy Uwajeh (Roxane), Eben Figueiredo (Christian) – are perfection personified, and despite everything appearing redolent of contemporary London they do somehow manage to transport us to seventeenth-century France. Anita-Joy Uwajeh imbues her engaging Roxane with the inspiring strength of a #MeToo survivor of sexual abuse and Eben Figueiredo – whose urban dialect is wonderfully mimicked by McAvoy at one point – brings a great deal of honesty, decency, and integrity to Christian. They are magnificently supported by the rest of the astonishingly energetic Jamie Lloyd Company ensemble including Michele Austin as the amiable baker and café-owner, Ragueneau, who also runs a school for budding poets, and Tom Edden as the threatening, disturbing, and predatory De Guiche. Also, in a play about the beauty and power of words it is the sounds of Vaneeka Dadhria’s virtuosic beatboxing that provides the rhythm for much of what we hear.

The world is a strange place at the moment and who knows when you may get an opportunity to see this remarkable theatrical experience on stage or screen again, but if the opportunity arises it is not to be missed. Meanwhile hopefully there will be more to enjoy from National Theatre Live sometime soon.

Jim Pritchard

For more about National Theatre Live click here.

For more about The Jamie Lloyd Company click here.

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