McAvoy: Ayes and Nose
Cyrano de Bergerac
Theatre Royal, Glasgow
Review by Mark Brown
It is testament to the brilliance of Cyrano de Bergerac – French dramatist Edmond Rostand’s famous 1897 play about the warrior poet with the super-sized nose – that it has proved to be amenable to such a range of adaptations. For instance, the late, great Scottish poet and dramatist Edwin Morgan translated Rostand’s classic (which is set in 1640, in the midst of the Franco-Spanish War) into a beautiful Scots.
Morgan’s version received a fabulous production, directed by Dominic Hill for Glasgow’s Citizens Theatre Company, in 2018. It is difficult to imagine a staging more different from Hill’s (a gloriously imaginative evocation of 17th-century France) than the latest, street smart version by acclaimed English director Jamie Lloyd (which has just completed a week-long residency in Glasgow ahead of a transfer to New York next month).
Lloyd’s staging boasts a new, sometimes touching, often very funny script by celebrated dramatist Martin Crimp and – to the great excitement of many movie goers – the services of Scottish film star James McAvoy in the title role. Full of confident swagger, the production combines Rostand’s historical romance with the 21st-century hip hop culture of London’s diverse working-class youth.
Rostand, famously, wrote his play in rhyme, and Crimp has channelled that masterfully into the language of hip hop and the rhythms and rhymes of contemporary spoken word performance. At times, the actors – who are kitted out in modish streetwear – engage in competitive rap.
In other moments the piece seems like a poetry slam. The production is even graced by beatboxer Vaneeka Dadhria, whose talents are used, ingeniously, both as part of the musical score and as an integrated element in the dramatic soundtrack (to recreate the sounds of battle, for example).
Played on designer Soutra Gilmour’s super-minimalist set – which is created in a style one might call benevolent brutalism – the piece casts McAvoy’s Cyrano as a Scottish outsider. Clad in a tight puffer jacket and designer jeans, the X-Men star does not wear a prosthetic proboscis (director Lloyd preferring that we imagine the poet’s enormous nose).
Cyrano hides his anguish at his unattractiveness to women (and, in particular, his beloved distant cousin Roxane) behind a veneer of literate bravado. Like Brian Ferguson in the Citizens’ staging, McAvoy achieves a brilliant balance between his character’s robust ebullience and his underlying pain and vulnerability.
It is remarkable how quickly the actor enables us to suspend our disbelief and attach to the pathos of his performance a huge schnozzle that isn’t actually there.
In the midst of a universally fine cast, Eben Figueiredo shines as a humorously self-deprecating Christian (the handsome, but inarticulate soldier who wins Roxane’s heart with poetry written by Cyrano). Tom Edden is also superb as the repugnant aristocrat, the Count de Guiche. However, Evelyn Miller’s strident and smart Roxane is the cream of the supporting cast (particularly in the drama’s powerful denouement).
The self-conscious coolness of the production often requires actors to stand facing the audience, even when their characters are interacting with other figures on stage. Even if one finds this irritating at times (as, I confess, I did), it does give the heartbreaking final scene between Cyrano and Roxane – in which Lloyd dispenses with the deliberate distancing of his actors – a truly powerful intimacy.
A sell-out in Glasgow, where enthusiastic audiences snapped up tickets to see McAvoy (one of the city’s most famous sons), this Cyrano isn’t necessarily worthy of the raucous standing ovation it received on Wednesday night. It is, however, a bold and excellently performed modernisation of Rostand’s enduring romance.
Cyrano de Bergerac plays BAM (Brooklyn Academy of Music), New York, April 5 to May 22: bam.org/cyrano
This review was originally published in the Sunday National on March 27, 2022
© Mark Brown