Playhouse Theatre, London – until 29 February 2020
It has been an extraordinary and prolific year for Jamie Lloyd with a huge array of works in performance that have earned considerable acclaim. As 2019 dawned, we were in the midst of the Pinter at the Pinter season with Collections Five and Six facing the press shortly after the New Year. In February, Danny Dyer and Martin Freeman completed the anthology series with The Dumb Waiter, and then there was Betrayal.
Brilliantly reimagined for the Harold Pinter Theatre, the production starring Tom Hiddleston, Zawe Ashton and Charlie Cox transferred to Broadway where the New York Times reviewer hailed it an interpretation he seemed ‘destined to think about forever’. But Lloyd was far from finished and an extraordinary reinvigoration of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita dominated the Regent’s Park summer season which gave fresh life to what many had felt was a 1970s period piece.
Lloyd excels at deconstructing classics and remodelling them for modern theatre, simplifying and decluttering the history of performance to find new emotional resonance in the original text. Any of the aforementioned productions may well feature in the forthcoming awards season (with Evita already taking trophies at the Evening Standard Awards), but before the year ends Lloyd has one more gift for us, the launch of a brand new season at The Playhouse Theatre where regular collaborator James McAvoy stars in the inaugural show, an achingly modern and exciting version of Cyrano de Bergerac adapted by Martin Crimp.
Crimp in fact bookends the year, staring 2019 with his fascinating (but hugely divisive) When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, a reworking of Pamela starring Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane. Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the last West End shows to face the press this year and Crimp has captured the essence of Edmond Rostand’s late 19th century original with its devotion to language, poetry and the power of words to convey every aspect of human emotion. It is notably a verse play, one that uses groups of rhyming couplets throughout its five act structure, so the easiest path to contemporisation would be to turn it into a prose piece, but Crimp resists and instead utilises the rhythms and speed of urban poetry and rap to give his characters and themes their modern voice.
It is very skilfully done, sustained across the three-hour run-time to both hilarious and emotive effect. As Cyrano and his agitator lock horns in the opening act their ensuing duel essentially becomes a poetry slam, trading insults in the back and forth at a blazing pace with considerable rhythmic complexity. Crimp plays with the language so that the rhyme is sometimes masked, coming mid-sentence and even occasionally mid-syllable or using assonance to prevent the dialogue becoming too sing-song in the delivery.
But there is also a consciousness about the way characters speak, drawing on Cyrano’s renown as a soldier-poet and actively commenting on the mutual skill of the verse club that gathers at Ragueneau’s cafe, as well as distinguishing the marked shift to prose occurring during the period of the play’s setting (1640-1655). It is a subtle meta-theatrical expression that adds social commentary while also marking a key shift in the history of performance, creating the notion of something significant coming to an end which frames the plot.
In bringing Cyrano de Bergerac to the stage, Jamie Lloyd once again demonstrates the clarity with which he always sees a classic text, stripping away the layers of earlier interpretation and popular culture expectation to deliver something that feels admirably pure. Soutra Gilmour designs an MDF box with only a few microphones and chairs from which the actors will use words to create this pseudo-seventeenth-century setting. Later, the back of the box lifts out to create more performance space with wooden steps to give added depth to the war scenes and Jon Clark’s atmospheric lighting design to subtly shift the mood from the bawdy humour of the encamped poet-soldiers to the dimly lit interior heartache of Cyrano’s tortured soul.
The emphasis as ever with Lloyd is on the text and like his radio-play staging of A Slight Ache in Pinter at the Pinter Collection Seven, the strength of language is relished and celebrated, allowing the emotional force of the work to build and resonate. Lloyd controls the fine balance between the play’s strong masculine energy coming from the encamped army and the softer mood of both the romantic plot and the emphasis on poetry and expression. Both elements work comprehensively and credibly together, feeding the unfolding narrative with Lloyd easily switching the tone as the two stories enfold and intersect.
The sense of machismo is particularly felt in the early scenes as the intensity of Cyrano’s arrival and his laddish interaction with his comrades builds to a bare-chested maul that instantly establishes their Company dynamic and loyalty. Yet, the group equally express their sensitivity and individuality through the poetry competition that ultimately makes the return to war and the seeming hopelessness of their predicament in the penultimate scene so effective, the careful staging creating order and unison in their coordinated movement and military stance.
Crucial to the establishment of Cyrano as a character, the audience needs to believe that he is both a military leader and overwhelmed by unrequited love for Roxanne. And while previous interpretations have emphasised the comedy, particularly Cyrano’s enormous nose (on screen especially), McAvoy’s approach eschews a nasal prosthetic to create a man tormented by inner demons that affect the way he seems himself and his own attitude to happiness. At every point McAvoy radiates complexity with a duality that feels almost Macbeth-like, as a powerful masculinity visible to the outside world fights with a broken interior life that alters his destiny and purpose. Driven by inevitability, where Macbeth is motivated by power, Cyrano is by an ungovernable love he can neither satisfy or resist, one that will consume and ultimately destroy him.
Always a strong stage presence, McAvoy delivers both aspects of Cyrano’s personality with skill, creating an imposing soldierly presence, glowering and menacing as he takes control of the play scene, a man comfortable with the use of violence and its consequences as well as arrogant about his own ability to make demands and control situations. In the emotional unfolding to come, the way in which McAvoy slowly dismantles Cyrano’s outward armour is extraordinary, revealing the layers of self-abasement beneath. In a number of highly affecting soliloquies in which McAvoy holds the audience in thrall, Cyrano painfully describes observing the normalcy of other people, jealously noting the couples around him and piteously describing the physical deformity holding him back from the easy happiness of others.
The decision to avoid a fake nose is a shrewd one in this stripped-back production which adds a layer of deep psychological wound to Cyrano’s soul, allowing the audience to wonder if the barriers he perceives to his own happiness are truly physical or just in his mind – an outcome that adds to the growing heartache that increasingly pours forth. Even the comradely ribbing he receives from his fellow soldiers may reflect the group sensing weakness and, like children, using it to test the limits of their commander’s authority.
McAvoy is also a very fine theatre technician, relishing the complexity and challenge of Crimp’s complex rhythms to which he proves himself more than equal. The urban poetry rolls beautifully, and sometimes at considerable speed, in McAvoy’s native Scotch, with the actor mastering the rhythm so well that the dialogue springs naturally from the character and not enslaved by the artificiality of the tempo. Whether as himself or in an entertaining impersonation of love rival Christian’s very different speaking style, McAvoy uses his voice as an instrument to create and alter the tone of Cyrano’s expression, taking a more forceful approach to instructing his men while speaking in a lower, softer register, almost a whisper at times as he conveys the sincerity of his love for Roxanne when narrating the letters he writes so passionately to her, full of desperate yearning and painful separation.
These declarations are sentimental, even sugary and could so easily sound comic, but the sad tenderness with which McAvoy delivers them reveals the full excavation of soul the character experiences as hope is slowly and movingly extinguished. It is a wonderful performance, full of raw melancholic heartache that will make you simultaneously despair for his anguish and thrill at such a meaningful return to the stage.
With a scheme offering reduced price tickets to those on low incomes or wouldn’t usually go to the theatre, the supporting cast will feel like a recognisable community and a rare opportunity to see a classic work performed by a company that reflects the audience watching it. This may be badged as 1640 but dressed in jeans and tracksuits this feels like London in 2019. Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Roxanne is charming but tactless and selfish, pursuing her physical attraction to Christian without noticing Cyrano’s desolation. Crimp has used the character to make a number of contemporary points about the changing position of women, and it is notable that Uwajeh delivers a performance in which Roxanne takes charge of her own destiny, outwitting the men folk and determining a path for herself, not letting so much as a battlefield stand in her way.
Eben Fugueiredo as Christian has an entertaining swagger that masks his own degree of doubt concerning his intellectual and romantic qualities, drawing him reasonably into Cyrano’s scheme, and while there is a moment in Act Four that feels awkwardly show-horned into the play to make an unclear point, Fugueiredo delivers Christian’s comic gormlessness well. Tom Edden as finger-drumming baddie De Guiche is also a comic delight, using a clipped RP delivery to convey the character’s evil machinations with glee, while Michele Austin adds a maternal touch as Cyrano’s friend and eventual confident Ragueneau, as well as embodying the community which her cafe serves and supports so well.
The simplicity of Jamie Lloyd’s approach seems deceptive at first, unsure whether the empty staging can truly sustain momentum over three hours, but the intimacy created by the microphones and the focus on the emotional and military currents of the play becomes utterly engaging. Freed from is exaggerated comic overtones and reimagined for the modern stage with a contemporary cast, this feels at every moment like theatre at its most exciting, liberating and inclusive. You always know that a production by this Company will play with your preconceptions to deliver something new, but Lloyd still manages to dazzle and surprise. It has been an exceptional year for the director and this latest collaboration with James McAvoy ensures that for Jamie Lloyd 2019 ends on a high.
Cyrano de Bergerac is at the Playhouse Theatre until 29 February with tickets from £15. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook: Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
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