Review: Cyrano de Bergerac is raw and compelling with James McAvoy and Anita Joy

A Monday evening in December and guests begin to arrive at London’s Playhouse Theatre. The lobby is filled with air kisses, white wine and laughter, as the crowd wait to be seated. There is an excitement in the air, the sort of excitement that only occurs when a celebrity is thought to be nearby. An usher pulls back a short red velvet rope. In hushed voices, the audience take their seats. The play begins.

Edmond Rostand’s neo-romanticism is stripped back and brought into present day, as microphone stands scatter the stage and actors don modern day clothing, reciting their lines in t-shirts and skinny jeans. Set in 17th century France, the absence of costume and presence of a minimalistic mise en scène is raw and compelling. The cast, as they stand in a line, only stepping forward to speak into the microphones, have the audience’s full attention. At cursory glance, Rostand’s revived magnum opus could easily be mistaken for a rehearsal.

Cyrano de Bergerac. James McAvoy (Cyrano de Bergerac). Credit - Marc Brenner.6494
Cyrano de Bergerac. James McAvoy (Cyrano de Bergerac). Credit – Marc Brenner.6494

In this tale of romance, passion, deceit and war, we marvel at our protagonist, Cyrano de

Bergerac (James McAvoy), a sharp tongued, Quasimodo-esque soldier who is hopelessly in love with his cousin (stay with me), the beautiful, intellectual yet unassuming Roxane (Anita Joy). Much to Cyrano’s dismay, Roxane has her eye on Christian, an attractive but poetically challenged cadet. Christian agrees to let Cyrano help him woo Roxane with his wonderful words, creating the most complicated love triangle since Twilight. But before we go any further, we must address the elephant in the room.

Cyrano de Bergerac. Michele Austin (Ragueneau), Kiruna Stamwell (Marie-Louise) & Mika Johnson. Credit - Marc Brenner.2021
Cyrano de Bergerac. Michele Austin (Ragueneau), Kiruna Stamwell (Marie-Louise) & Mika Johnson. Credit – Marc Brenner.2021

Cyrano de Bergerac, played by McAvoy, is virtually unrecognisable. Known primarily for his humungous snout, Cyrano is far from good looking. Yet when McAvoy, an enviably handsome Hollywood actor, appears on stage, sans prosthetics, the infamous nose is nowhere to be found. Rather, the audience must rely solely on fleeting remarks as proof that the nose truly exists. As one character cleverly adds, “the enormity of his nose is a deformity which those who’ve never seen it can hardly imagine.”. Martin Crimp’s interpretation of the notorious nose is abstract, existing only in our minds, adding further humour to his postmodern (loose) adaptation.

Crimp stays true to Rostand’s poetic artistry and infamous rhyming couplets but does so in a contemporary fashion. With rhythmic verse reminiscent of today’s hip hop and colloquial lyricisms more akin to spoken word poetry, Crimp combines the panache of Shakespeare with the modern edge of Hamilton to create an adaptation that is fiercely imaginative and refreshing.

As the story unfolds through rhyming retorts, we are encouraged to laugh along with Christian, sneer at the conniving, yet admittedly funny, De Guiche and root for the underdog Cyrano. McAvoy wins our hearts through his gripping performance in this stage role, embodying the belligerent yet devoted nature of Cyrano de Bergerac. He makes us laugh, captivates us, only to break our hearts. Whilst Anita Joy Uwajeh, provides a welcome change with her portrayal of Roxane, as she shuns traditional sexist tropes to give us a sharp-witted modern-day damsel.

Vaneeka Dadhria, resident beatboxer, composes a score using only her voice as an instrument, as she skilfully provides suspense in one breath and comic relief in another. Crimp’s adaptation is punctuated by beatboxing and witty one liners. The characters appear to be rather aware of their audience, often inserting pop culture references into their lyrical verse. There’s a moment in which Cyrano puts forward an idea he claims he saw “in a film by Steve Martin”, of course referring to the 1987 film adaptation Roxane. This self-awareness is subtle yet clever and slowly becomes a running gag throughout, acting as almost an inside joke between the cast and the audience.

This contemporary adaptation is oozing with satire, rife with romance and maintains momentum throughout. Its diverse cast bring the story to life using very little props at all, which is quite remarkable. If it’s bright lights and musical numbers you’re after, maybe try Wicked. But if you’re in the mood for some hip-hop infused theatre, Cyrano de Bergerac will charm your nose off.

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