Cyrano de Bergerac ~ theatre notes

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand, translated by Marion Potts and Andrew Upton, directed by Simon Phillips, design by Gabriela Tylesova. With David Wenham, Bob Hornery, Asher Keddie, Alex Menglet, David Lyons, Gerry Connolly, Carita Farrer, Hayden Spencer, Stephen Ballantyne, Adam Zwar, Russell Fletcher and Jay Bowen. Melbourne Theatre Company at the Arts Centre Playhouse until April 2.

George Bernard Shaw once contemptuously dismissed Cyrano de Bergerac as mere "pasteboard". This is a little like attacking King Lear because it's a bit depressing. Cyrano de Bergerac is about the artifice of theatre at least as much as it's about the tragedy of having a huge honker.

It was a period piece when it was written, set in a fantasia of 17th century Paris. Rostand took theatrical conventions that in 1897 were already two centuries old and whipped them into a delectable new froth. It permits him to make rude jokes about practically everyone in classical French literature, from Molière to the now (it seems deservedly) obscure Balthazar Baro, and to parody theatre itself with a fond mercilessness peculiar to its practitioners.

Simon Phillips has a flair for this sort of play, which is light without being insubstantial; I fondly remember his 1989 production of The Importance of Being Earnest, with an Aubrey Beardsley-derived set and a performance of memorable loathing from Frank Thring. He directs Cyrano de Bergerac with style, employing a spectacular design by Gabriela Tylesova, and casting David Wenham, the thinking woman's crumpet, in the title role.

This production uses a new translation by Andrew Upton and Marion Potts, which has been adapted further by Upton. The play is streamlined, excising some extraneous characters and scenes and conflating others, and updates many (but not all) of Rostand's jokes. Most riskily, the translators preserve much of the rhymed verse of the original. The gamble pays off: they create tough, vital dramatic verse, adorned with flourishes of Byronic wit. The adaptation gives Rostand a contemporary colloquial edge without in the least compromising the complexities of the original. I am all admiration.

Aside from its satirical energy which, like Molière, attacks social hypocrisy and pretension at every turn, the major reason the play has lasted is the enduring attraction of Cyrano de Bergerac himself. Cyrano is a man incapable of compromise, a shamelessly proud and idealistic poet who would, literally, die for his "panache". The irony is that if it were not for his nose, he would not be the romantic paragon he is; it's his conviction of his physical repulsiveness that drives him to such impossible moral purity.

He is the most literary of fictional heroes, a man whose passionate nature is cursed by his outrageous schnozzle (to paraphrase Eliot, only those with large noses know what it means to want to escape from them). His real tragedy is that, like his hero Don Quixote, he is born into a time and place which has little time for his ideas of honour. The difference between Quixote and Cyrano is that Cyrano is aware of his own absurdity. His vaulting literary ambition, which sneers at superficial success, is as crippling as his nose: both ridiculous and ennobling.

This self-conscious ambiguity is why Cyrano de Bergerac is more than bathetic sentiment (another Shavian judgment). Its farcical narrative of human flaws unfolds into genuine pathos. Refusing to reconcile his ideals with the corrupt and decadent world in which he lives, Cyrano creates mayhem and stirs up enemies wherever he goes; in the first half hour he leaves about eight corpses strewn about the stage. Even his most ardent friends tell him that he is a pain in the arse, and his rigid adherence to his code of honour denies romantic happiness not only to himself but to his great love, Roxane. It's the triumph of Rostand's writing that we accept that Cyrano cannot be anything other than he is, and admire him for it.

Wenham's proboscis is as astoundingly long as some of his speeches (Cyrano de Bergerac is, in the fullest sense, a play on words). He gives Cyrano a swaggering physical presence, an arrogant machismo tempered by the private delicacy and passion of his feelings. It's difficult to believe in his ugliness, even under the umbrella of his nose; this Cyrano is a handsome man obscured, rather than a man whose moral comeliness trumps his surface blemishes. Like the text, his performance is adorned with irony and seductive wit, but what shines through by the end is Cyrano's stoic moral courage, of a plainer and more stylish mode than his showy machismo, and thus more poignant.

Asher Keddie as the beautiful but distressingly literate Roxane convincingly manages the transition from intellectual infatuation and vanity to real feeling, and makes a grand foil for Wenham's Cyrano. They are ably supported, most notably by Alex Menglet at his comic best as the poetic baker Ragueneau, David Lyons as the handsome but witless lover Christiane de Neuvilette, and Hayden Spencer as his rival de Guiche, the rich nephew of Cardinal Richelieu. The cast draws on a wide range of comic tropes, both contemporary and historical; there are nods to The Young Ones and Blackadder as well as to the satires of Molière.

As the play moves towards its tragic conclusion, Wenham tends to a repetitive cadence, a dying fall on each line, which enervates the language and marginally compromises its feeling. And for all their energy, some performances lack the highly polished clarity and precision this kind of European-style theatre demands, muffling its effect. The sword fights, for example, seem hesitant, as if the actors are afraid of being cut; and some performers were hard to hear, an essential in a play which is so much about language. It gives an overall effect of being ever-so-slightly out of focus. But this feeling may well dissipate as the play warms into its season.

Gabriela Tylesova's set, sumptuously lit by Nick Schlieper, creates a rich and flexible space which draws wittily on the theatricality of the play. The transformations - from decadent Parisian society, to a set which recalls the desolate battlefield in Abel Gance's film of Napoleon to, finally, a serene evocation of a convent in autumn - are magnificently expressive realisations of the play's differing moods. And her costumes are fantasies, from Roxane's extraordinarily beautiful mourning dress to the ludicrously exaggerated fripperies of the Parisian fops.

Ian Macdonald's original music, scored for electric violin, adds considerably to the production's expressiveness, especially as it's played live on stage by Michael Harris masquerading as a blind street musician. Phillips' direction exploits the set like a conjurer, with performers popping up from trapdoors or from among the audience, or being suddenly revealed inside curtained boxes that are theatres within the theatre, or surreal bakeries, or coaches made of cheese. It's magic like this that makes me think that the proscenium arch is such a fine idea. Pasteboard? Yes, absolutely; but pasteboard with panache.

Picture: David Wenham as Cyrano de Bergerac with Asher Keddie as Roxane

Melbourne Theatre Company


Anonymous said...

maybe the wit was great and the acting superb, but the overload of sexual inneundos - purely for the enjoyment of those prepubescent schoolboys in the back rows proved to be lacking in subtlety. what really quite annoyed me was the overt camp and gaudiness of the play - where ragnueneau was the only one with a french accent despite the fact that the whole setting was in period france - and de guiche played by a prancing gay? plus teh over the top australian accent by one of the cadets?? this may be post modernist but surely it could have been more refined. and sorry but the dramatic verse did not work one bit, my expectation of the poetry was not given, but maybe thats just a play on our expectation done deliberately and thats the irony of the play - i'm willing to give Simon Phillips the benefit of teh doubt - since urinetown was brilliant.

Alison Croggon said...

De gustibus non disputandum est... I can't argue that you didn't enjoy the experience, which you have every right not to, and no doubt you prefer other kinds of plays.

However, I do dispute the criticisms on the colloquial accents. Rageneau had a European accent (Russian, actually) because the actor is Russian. The others spoke, I assume, in their normal accents. For them to fake outrageous or even decent French accents would have been, to my mind, ridiculous. And I prefer that kind of transparency.

As for the poetry - I read the translated text closely, and compared it to earlier translations. I know a fair bit about poetry, and I think it was superbly done.

Anonymous said...

I think its great for actors to use their own voices whatever their accents are ..though poetry in order to be resonant does need to be sprung somewhat...what i hated in a play set in france by australian actors was the use of overtly english accents..roxanne was really quite posh ..and there was no need ..this actress has a wonderful rich deep voice in its own accent and i missed it in this performance alienated me from her character and her passion. there is no reason to be french of course ..but even less reason to be english.