We begin at the end. A convent near Paris, the setting of Edmond Rostand’s final act. The all-women ensemble sing Lux Aeterna in a minor key. The first words spoken linger in the air as they iterate exactly what we all are thinking. ‘Where is this man of mystery?’
Framing Cyrano de Bergerac’s story to be retold by nuns was originally a practical decision: Glyn Maxwell’s adaptation was first performed in Chester by a cast comprised of more women than men. But it proves itself as an effective choice, one which emphasises the metatheatricality found in Rostand’s play and enables an indulgence in its own performance. It also allows us to indulge in one particular performance.
At Southwark, the man of mystery is a woman of sheer magnetism. And having scenes which delay the appearance of Kathryn Hunter’s Cyrano creates a strange sort of heightened agony, similar to what Roxanne feels at the top of her balcony as she hears her lover’s beautiful poetry but is unable to see his face, unable to fully revel in his image, unable to yoke his soul to his body. It is utter antici—–pation. And when she finally appears, it is so utterly worth it. Usually mystery is dampened by actuality, but with a nose like Pinocchio telling white lies or a tuberous vegetable, Hunter enters and makes mystery look dull.
I could go on. Hell, I could concoct Cyrano-inspired sonnets rhapsodizing about Hunter’s punctuated physicality, her mastered and masterful performance. And actually, that wouldn’t be an entirely unfair review. It would however be unbalanced, much like the production itself. Bolam’s all-female Cyrano comes at a time when gender parity is a topical and pressing concern. While campaigns for equal representation are being rolled out, Matt Trueman recently warned about the danger of the female-as-male-lead fad. Bolam bucks the trend by—to quote Trueman—‘chang[ing] the way we watch theatre’, by allowing Rostand’s play and Maxwell’s adaptation to thrive in an all-female environment. But allowance does not equate to execution, and there is not enough oppositional force instilled in the rest of the production to stop it from falling into Hunter’s gravitational orbit.
For a play which praises sharpness of the tongue and acuteness of wit, the action onstage is quite blunt. Finer moments arise between Hunter and Ellie Kendrick, particularly when the duo work in tandem to woo Roxanne. But the ensemble scenes fall flat. Cyrano’s sword skills should be as cutting as his wordplay, yet the combat is crude, and with a thrown-together, shabby-but-not-quite-chic set, the production feels a bit sloppy. Perhaps that was the intention, as reenactements in convents are not usually big budget affairs? If that’s the case, I’d argue there are better performative paths offered by Maxwell’s script than the ones pursued here.
So much of Cyrano de Bergerac is about hearing and seeing. Cyrano believes he is ‘a man that the world would rather listen to than look at’ even while the world cannot help but look at him. The relationship between aural and visual extends to the division of the soul and the body; Roxanne’s corporeal love for Christian evolves into a love for Cyrano’s soul, evidenced by his words. As Hunter says, ‘[Cyrano]’s a clown and a hero, but he also can’t be a hero because he has this whacking great nose’. He is a contradiction, a voice defined by his visage, a poet who believes poems ‘should be written by the unseen about the unseen for the unseen!’
If poetry should remain invisible, then how do we stage a play that’s in verse? How do we reconcile professions of love with their need to remain authentic? These questions are frustratingly left unanswered, barely even raised. And to consider the unique position this production finds itself in, able to further problematize this relationship by confronting our gendered history, a history where women have been constantly considered creatures best seen and not heard…
Let’s get back to Hunter. She delivers the most performative moment of the evening, proclaiming to Roxanne, ‘Hear my love in the silence, it is the sound of the soul in love, and not the body’. She pauses after ‘silence’, sculpting the aural space, creating a cavernous nothingness and filling it to the brim. It is a true performative utterance: it enacts its own meaning as it is enunciated. The moment is finished in seconds yet holds more lasting power than the rest of the play. It demonstrates the mutually informing worlds of words and performance. To take this instance as example and aim to replicate its effects from beginning to end. That is a play I would like to see.
Cyrano de Bergerac is on until 19th March 2016. Click here for tickets.