The poster outside American Airlines Theatre for Roundabout Theatre’s delightful new Broadway production of French dramatist Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac teases us by keeping its most infamous feature out of sight. Douglas Hodge’s Cyrano looks out at us, a twinkle in his left eye. Much of his face is hidden in shadow by the broad brim of his musketeer’s hat – including his nose. If we want to see it, we’re going to have to buy a ticket.
British director Jamie Lloyd has a lot of meta-theatrical fun with Cyrano’s noteriety in the opening scenes, letting an assortment of seventeenth-century Parisian socialites and peasants gossip about Cyrano before bringing him on through the theatre EXIT doors in a flurry of noise and sound, to halt a particularly dreadful play being performed on stage. If the swashbuckling soldier-poet with the sizeable proboscis is well-known to us, he’s no less famous in his world.
Bounding through the auditorium and on to the stage in a bright red cape, like a bawdy Superman, this Cyrano’s initial appearance is all about showmanship. Cutting down prissy opponents literally and figuratively, sword-fighting as he recites poetry, he’s playing a part. He knows what’s expected of him by his fellow musketeers and the populace at large, and obliges. Hodge is magnetic in these scenes, mocking the accents of his opponents and hurtling around the set like a flamboyant tornado.
But this pantomime is exactly as it appears: an effect. As Cyrano pre-empts mockery of his nose by coming up with increasingly outlandish and obscene uses for it, cracks begin to show in his façade. The ugly, bulbous protuberance on his face is clearly a disfigurement, not the cartoonish thing he describes. He has defied society’s cruelty by making himself larger than life, but this anarchic creation is also what he hides behind.
Hodge lets us into Cyrano’s inner world gradually. He never fails to convey the character’s wit and panache – until the end, this is a man who would rather die than lose the plume from his hat – but from his first encounter with Roxane, the beautiful cousin he secretly loves, it’s the painful size of Cyrano’s heart that most stands out.
This is Hodge’s third time working with Lloyd – most recently on Inadmissible Evidence at the Donmar Warehouse in London – and it’s obviously a fruitful relationship. Cyrano is far more appealing than the monstrous Bill Maitland in John Osborne’s play, but they are united by a grandiosity that nonetheless feels rooted in something real and true.
Lloyd’s direction blends seamlessly with Ranjit Bolt’s English verse translation, which bursts with earthy, sweary wit and manages to be compassionate without drooping into sentimentality in the play’s quieter moments. It pulls at your heart-strings without yanking them, and the majority of the cast deliver their rhymed lines with the feeling and tempo of real people.
As Christian, the handsome but ineloquent cadet who enlists Cyrano’s help in wooing Roxane, Kyle Soller is impetuous but sympathetic: a young man frustrated by his limitations. Clemence Poesy gets off to a stilted start as the love of Cyrano’s life, but warms up, tempering haughtiness with playfulness. Meanwhile, the velvet-voiced Patrick Page takes aristocratic commanding officer Comte de Guiche from enjoyable boo-hiss villain to white-haired old man, shaken into a sense of humanity by the battle that opens the second act.
It’s in this fight – based on the real-life siege of Arras in 1640 – that the direction of Lloyd’s production really pays off. He’s made us laugh, and in doing so made us care. If Hodge stands centre-stage as Cyrano, he does so supported by an ensemble cast who cultivate a Band of Brothers camaraderie as his fellow soldiers. In scenes of injury and death, Lloyd doesn’t shy away from depicting a loss of community that places Cyrano’s broken heart in a much bigger emotional landscape.
The shift from the exuberance of the first half to the melancholic tone of the second is beautifully reflected in the crumbling brickwork of Soutra Gilmour’s set and Japhy Weideman’s lighting design, which saturates the stage with a deep autumnal glow as leaves flutter to the ground of the convent where Roxane will see out her days.
Lloyd gives us thrills and spills, but he and Hodge never let the play’s most prominent feature block our view of the vividly evoked world behind it. The tone is light, but not lightweight – you’ll laugh, but you’ll be moved too.