James McAvoy and the Cyrano de Bergerac cast on West End opening night
Jamie Lloyd's production adapted by Martin Crimp kicks off the director's Playhouse Theatre takeover
James McAvoy and Jamie Lloyd have made for a strong pairing in the past, with McAvoy's leading role in Macbeth nominated for an Olivier Award back in 2013, and his performance in The Ruling Class earning him a further nomination in 2015 as well as a WhatsOnStage Award nomination in 2016.
Lloyd's latest work – a revamped production of Edmond Rostand's Cyrano de Bergerac by Martin Crimp which opens his West End season at the Playhouse Theatre – is a return to this comfortable and familiar partnership ("Old hat, darling!" according to McAvoy).
WhatsOnStage caught up with McAvoy and some of the cast – Anita-Joy Uwajeh, Michele Austin, Kiruna Stamell, Brinsley Terence, Chris Fung and Philip Cairns – after the show's opening night.
How are you feeling after tonight's show?
Uwajeh: "Lovely, everyone was really on side right from the beginning. It felt so warming."
Austin: "Tonight felt wonderful. It always feels a little bit bubbly on opening night, everyone's that little bit more excited. But Jamie gave us a brilliant pep talk, which is just to do the show that we know that we can do."
Terence: "It's the culmination of a lot of hard work, so it's exciting that we can now show it to as many people as we can."
What was it like to work with a director like Jamie Lloyd and be a part of this Playhouse Theatre season?
McAvoy: "He's a really amazing storyteller and that's the most important thing. Whatever direction he gives you – whether you understand it, agree with it, even feel insulted by it – he's only ever trying to tell the story in the clearest way possible. Because of that, it's so full of integrity that you follow him wherever he wants to go."
Uwajeh: "I've never worked with Jamie before and the vision that he has for something is so intense and beautiful that it resonates with you. Even as crazy as it was – initially I thought, 'What is going on?!' – he gives you the confidence that it'll be alright. And I think you need that in a director."
Stamell: "He feels like a peer, a really open-minded individual. He's approachable, he's got a great presence and vision for what he wants – he's definitely steering the ship but he's not doing it with a big stick."
Terence: "It was a very refreshing approach to the rehearsal process. Jamie allows the characters to come out organically from the actors – we make the choices and then he guides wherever it needs to. It's a testament to Martin Crimp's translation – the script felt real, organic, relevant to now. It gives everyone an easier way to access the language."
With a host of free and £15 tickets – as well as the open dress rehearsal viewing – the production really seems to be attracting some new theatregoers.
Austin: "The company is about putting diversity on the stage and they mean it. The nights when we had the £15 tickets and the open dress rehearsal – those moments are brilliant. If you're in good shape, then why not invite people to pay what they can? People were queueing around the block!
"In previews, those performances with key workers and young people, they were really listening and that's exciting. My hope in this run is that people will come and see it and might take a punt on something else – we have to find a way to get young people and people of different classes into the theatre. It cannot be a playground for a small group of our society."
Stamell: "We are also a genuinely diverse cast where there isn't homogeneity. Everybody has had to face some tick-box diversity issue in their life – whether it be class, race, disability or other aspects of identity. It didn't feel like I was the only one in the room advocating a position, more like a genuine sharing of life experience with real people who are all incredibly talented and smart. I feel very connected to this ensemble."
Did you consciously work a lot on the company chemistry during rehearsals?
Uwajeh: "We created the whole piece together which gave us that energy that you can see on stage, of people working as a team to share this story in our own way."
Chris Fung: "The thing I found extraordinary about this process was the emphasis that the cast had on empathy and listening. A vast majority of the parts in tonight's finished product are members of the cast going, 'What if?' and having a crack. That context of being free to play is what our rehearsal process felt like. I had a front row seat to see these people bring their imaginations into their work."
McAvoy: "We did a lot of work on actively being in the room with each other and feeling each other's presence. The way Jamie's chosen to tell the story has such a strong style and is really effective, but it demands a level of focus and complicity from all of us – we're not even looking at each other a lot of the time. That invisible connection... we need to be in tune with each other, otherwise the whole f***ing thing doesn't work."
Uwajeh: "It's also really heightened, I feel like it gives the audience an opportunity to see what the characters are actually going through. I love those moments where I am looking at James and it's between us, but sometimes the audience can feel a little shut out. The fact that we still have a connection gives the audience a different opportunity to see us as two people having a conversation."
McAvoy: "That's when theatre's at its best – so f***ing great!"
How would you convince someone walking by in the street to see this show?
Terence: "If you want to watch a piece of theatre that is gonna challenge your perception of what theatre can be, how it can be staged, how it can be performed, then you'd definitely want to see a play like this. It's a love story that's very accessible – a fresh and exciting approach."
Austin: "If you love words, if you love music, if you're into poetry or rap or grime or you love to listen to the lyrics of songs, then this play is for you. It's not about going to see a classic, it's a play that celebrates the spoken word."
Philip Cairns: "And McAvoy's in it!"