Here’s something I never quite understood: nose aside, if his skill as a poet is one of the key traits that sets Cyrano de Bergerac apart, why does everyone around him also speak in verse? Even if his rhymes were a thousand times more accomplished, how much more sensible and effective if his supposed inferiors simply stuck to boring old prose?
Of course, neither adaptor Derek Mahon, designer William Dudley nor director Howard Davies can be blamed for a decision taken by Edmond Rostand in his 1897 original, in which the nasally disfigured Cyrano uses his wordplay to help the doltish but handsome Christian win the heart of his own true love, Roxane.
However, there are other faults with this new version that can only be laid at the door of the creative triumvirate. The first in this year’s Travelex £10 season in the Olivier, Cyrano de Bergerac has been brutally stripped down here. Forget the 3-D video projections with which he’s excelled in recent years, Dudley’s skeletal design resembles an unclad set for Stomp. The huge steel climbing frame and two gangways into the stalls may be functional, but they feel distinctly unfriendly and under-utilised.
Much of the evening’s humour arises from the calculated anachronisms in Irish poet Mahon’s translation, but it’s not always welcome. References to mineral water, eco-friendliness and euros jar, while crude lines such as “As for the nose, I’d sooner lose my dick. / Besides, the women like it when I lick” do the actors that must utter them few favours. Perhaps it’s not their fault that so many in the company seem ill at ease with such verse-speaking.
According to a programme note, Davies’ intention with all of this is to scrape “away the surface romanticism of the play”, but is this wise with the ultimate romantic swashbuckler? In any case, I fear he’s scraped too far beneath the surface and robbed the play of just about any heart whatsoever.
On a more positive note, Christopher Bruce’s choreography and Dominic Muldowny’s music produce two lovely set pieces – in the fencing room and on the battlefield - and, as Roxane, Claire Price proves incandescent despite a miscast Zubin Varla, who’s not nearly stupid enough nor pretty enough to convince as Christian. (In fact, after his own prosthetic nose turn in last year’s Midnight's Children for the RSC, Varla’s a much more likely candidate to play Cyrano himself one day.)
Though the vehicle may be questionable, it is wonderful to see Stephen Rea back on the London stage, and he strikes some moments – particularly in the seduction by proxy balcony scene – that make you want to forgive all others in a production that seems somehow at odds with itself.
- Terri Paddock