Full disclosure: I had never heard of this play.
“Cyrano, that classic!” my Twitter feed would say,
“The nose! Panache! That well-worn favourite!
James McAvoy in the lead! Foolish not to savour it.”
But still I remained stubbornly ignorant,
After all, Jamie Lloyd makes plays for the innocent,
For those not well-versed in Marlowe, Moliere, and the like,
He blasts off the canon, each time bowling a strike.
Sex? Indubitably! Violence? No doubt!
After all, that is what today’s kids are all about!
So off I went to the Playhouse, full of good cheer,
Hoping this production I would not have to smear.
And lo! What luck! It’s an absolute riot!
Though it comes into its own when at its most quiet.
So sit back, relax, while I walk you through it;
We’ll see if this experiment’s a logical fit.
Martin Crimp is a legend, of that there’s no question,
And his take on Cyrano is another accession,
Rhyming couplets full of wit, rhythm, and sinew,
Relished by the actors, who fill up that venue
With absolute confidence and absolute grace
Sometimes speaking verse at an alarmingly quick pace.
But the plot! Of course! I’m running ahead,
Along a convoluted narrative we must tread.
Cyrano de Bergerac is a man with a huge nose
Whose talents lie in verse (God forbid prose!)
He uses it as a weapon against fools in his path
Tripping up any of those who might incur his wrath.
Everyone bar Roxane, his distant cousin dearest,
A passion for whom he must try to suppress,
Because she loves another, the beautiful Christian,
Who, though gorgeous, is astonishingly dim.
And thus Cyrano, in his wily way,
Concocts a plan to have his say
With Roxane, who appreciates the art of the fine word,
And so he tells Christian what she wants to have heard.
Complications, as you might expect, ensue.
This is a French play, after all – through and through.
People book for this show because of the star,
So I’ll get to the point – that I can no longer bar:
James McAvoy is the pinnacle of excellence,
Bristling with charisma, volatility and eloquence,
Voice mercurial, sometimes low and mellifluous,
Then rising to a roar so mighty and conspicuous
That the whole theatre suddenly feels like it’s shaking,
Leaving the fools who get in his way quaking.
The nose is a metaphor – there are no prosthetics,
And it doesn’t quite work, in McAvoy’s aesthetic.
Because he isn’t an underdog, not by any means,
Does Jamie Lloyd seek to explore low self-esteem?
But Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Roxane is an absolute joy,
A reworked heroine whose feistiness won’t cloy,
Straining at the limits of societal constraints,
But still snobbish to a fault, never shown as a saint.
The stage is bare, Soutra Gilmour keeps it that way,
Save for microphones and wires, on which the cast play,
Lloyd makes it all muscle, no fat on the bone,
It’s all about the words – nothing extraneous is shown,
But it is too long, that I must admit,
With a first half which drags on just a whit,
With scatological jokes galore, you know, for the youth,
And Cyrano’s amped up wordplay obscuring the truth.
It’s odd to see James McAvoy engage in a poetry slam,
A little bit cringe…but also…like…damn…
It all feels a bit too “I’m down with the kids,”
But also, I’ll allow it – it gets ‘tween your ribs,
Works its way inside, performs some weird alchemy,
Leaves you breathless, brimming with vitality.
But actually, it’s the second half which hits you just right,
A melancholic, existential McAvoy, filled with true might.
The second half works because it takes its time,
Unlike the first, which is set in tight rhyme,
It slows, and it unfurls, like a tapestry unspooling,
The heat of the first half solidifies, cooling.
Cyrano’s self shimmers, comes in and out of focus,
He peers into a mirror when at his very lowest.
He begins to speak plainly, rhymes fall apart,
Possibly the epitome of “More matter, less art.”
Characters flit on and offstage, ghostly, silent,
In contrast to the first half’s penchant for the violent,
The poetry wears off, the trick becomes tired,
Prose is the new language that is required.
Crimp’s text is strongest when it strips away,
When it unpicks its own theatrics to finally say,
That language can be deceiving, intoxicating, dangerous.
That it can’t quite reach the ineffable – as is its purpose.
Cyrano de Bergerac is on at Playhouse Theatre until 29th February 2020. More info and tickets here.