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Conceptual Issues: Cyrano

It’s been an invigorating experience seeing two major theatre productions from the eastern States (which also happen to be literary adaptations) back-to-back as part of Perth Festival. MTC’s Cyrano and STC’s Jekyll and Hyde are two wildly different shows – I’m tempted to say, one plays Jekyll to the other’s Hyde. However, both have a level of artistic and technical finesse (and, it has to be said, budgets) that Perth audiences aren’t used to seeing on our main stages. I had conceptual issues with both shows (see my previous review of Jekyll and Hyde), but I couldn’t fault the expertise with which they were delivered.

Virginia Gay’s contemporary adaptation of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac emphasises the fact that Cyrano is also a playwright (played by Gay herself), who in collaboration with her fellow actor-characters appears to rewrite the original text as she goes along in order to make it more ‘positive’. In effect this means that Rostand’s 19th century romantic tragedy becomes a 21st century queer romantic comedy – which in some ways is not such a stretch, as the original already has farcical elements, and Cyrano’s nose already sets him apart as an outsider.

Cyrano written by Virginia Gay after Edmond Rostand. Photography by Daniel L Grant.

In this version, Gay’s female Cyrano falls hopelessly in love with Roxane, who’s in lust with the handsome but inarticulate Christian (or ‘Yan’, as he prefers to call himself). Gay dispenses with Cyrano’s famously big (and usually false) nose – which is the ostensible reason for the character’s sense of romantic despair in the original play – while still (somewhat bewilderingly) referring to it in the text. Instead, Cyrano’s ‘obstacle’ initially appears to be her gender and sexuality – although it’s eventually revealed to be more a case of mutual misunderstanding and fear of rejection (like all good rom coms).

Meanwhile a three-person Chorus in the form of a troupe of travelling players take the place of Cyrano’s friends and fellow soldiers in the original play. They also sing, dance and provide musical underscoring, as well as embodying snippets of other characters from the original, like the poet/pastry chef Ragueneau or the villainous De Guiche (though these characters seem largely irrelevant without the context of the original plot).

Gay’s adaptation also highlights the ‘toxic’ nature of Cyrano’s ‘betrayal’ of Roxane by impersonating Christian and verbally seducing her on his behalf. This act of ‘catfishing’ is duly called out as such by Roxane, but Cyrano’s last-minute apology leads (somewhat implausibly) to forgiveness. True love prevails, and Roxane and Cyrano end up together (no one gets killed in this version), while ‘Yan’ conveniently hooks up with ‘Charlotte’/Chorus Member 3.

All this might sound a bit half-baked and over-sweetened (like one of Rageneau’s less successful pastries). Fortunately, the dialogue is sparkling, and Gay has the rockstar acting chops to deliver the goods in the title role – both of which are essential requirement for a play about a famous real-life poet and wit.

Cyrano written by Virginia Gay after Edmond Rostand. Photography by Daniel L Grant.

Director Sarah Goodes and her design team also deliver a knock-out production in terms of the staging. Instead of a huge fake nose, there’s a huge fake proscenium arch – somewhat battered and broken – opening onto a bare stage with a fake back wall, loading bay, exit doors and fluorescent work lights. (All of this cleverly invokes the opening Act of Rostand’s original play, which is likewise set in a theatre.)

The actors wear rehearsal-style clothes, unload props from road cases, and perform all the songs and most of the music live. However – perhaps inevitably for a mainstage production – the sense that we’re watching poor theatre is an illusion, as there’s also an elaborate sound and lighting design (including haze), as well as some spectacular stage tricks that are pulled out of the hat in order to get the show’s somewhat corny ending over the line.

Cyrano written by Virginia Gay after Edmond Rostand. Photography by Daniel L Grant.

To be honest I felt a bit confused at times about the rules of the metatheatrical world that we were being asked to believe in, and as a result the dramatic stakes weren’t always entirely clear. In this regard I also found myself missing the all-important action-plot – involving deadly duels, mob violence and war – that grounds the central relationship story in the original. 

Consequently, despite the best efforts of the actors, Roxane and Christian felt even more like two-dimensional props for Cyrano’s fantasies than they do in the original, with Roxane seeming like an immature student of life who doesn’t yet know herself, while ‘Yan’ came across as a borderline misogynist frat-boy jock. 

Cyrano has always been a crowd-pleaser, and this version shares that popularist spirit. There’s a great sense of celebration at the end, and some terrific performances (especially from Gay, but also Holly Austin as ‘Charlotte’/Chorus Member 3) and moments of staging along the way.

It doesn’t entirely free itself from the some of the original play’s complications – and arguably gets itself even more entangled by trying to do so. Regardless of our gender or sexuality, or even what century we live in, we’ve all been Cyrano (or Roxane, or Christian) at some point in our lives. Perhaps that’s why the play still has such a hold on us.