Kicking off a new season at The Playhouse Theatre, Jamie Lloyd renews his relationship with James McAvoy for the first time since The Ruling Class at Trafalgar Studios. Martin Crimp’s adaptation of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac feels like the perfect way for the pair to explore how theatre can be more modern and accessible.
How modern can a play set in 1640 Paris really be? The cast wear tracksuits and jeans, there’s beatboxing, and the accents and language used on stage couldn’t be any more 21st Century. There’s a real sense that Lloyd has allowed his diverse cast to bring their own personalities to the characters they play.
The broad story remains the same; Cyrano de Bergerac is a feared soldier who has a flair for the poetic. He is in love with his cousin Roxanne, but considers himself too ugly, due to his overly large nose, to be in with a chance. So, he supports Christian to woo Roxanne, providing the more beautiful young man with the romantic words and prose required to satisfy Roxanne’s desire for an intellectual.
Friends, Leila (Michelle Austin) and Lignière (Nima Taleghani) are on hand for moral support, while Roxanne tries in vain to escape the Cardinal’s henchman, De Guiche (Tom Edden). Crimp’s adaptation certainly feels like it ticks all the boxes for a modern piece of theatre; ‘gender fluid’ is mentioned in the first scene, though it is never referenced again, and LGBTQ+ characters pop up occasionally, and even unexpectedly.
It would have tied this contemporary feel together if these themes had been explored more fully, rather than simply dropped in to the script here and there. There’s certainly scope, at almost three hours there was even time to mention the Steve Martin movie based on the original Bergerac, but that’s not to say Crimp’s adaptation doesn’t have its own particular kind of panache.
But where this does become a piece of contemporary theatre is in the staging. Soutra Gilmour’s set is both large and claustrophobic, with low hanging lights giving an oppressive feel to much of the action, and the complete blackouts genuinely build the tension. Almost all of the dialogue is delivered in to microphones, seemingly directly to the audience, allowing for the beatboxing and rap battles to blend seamlessly with the dialogue.
It won’t be to everyone’s taste, as James McAvoy whispered another monologue seductively in to a microphone, I was reminded of ASMR videos (a YouTube phenomenon where ASMR artists whisper, and make sounds to relax the viewer to aid slumber). It is both captivating and at times unsettling.
But it is without a doubt James McAvoy’s stellar performance that makes Cyrano de Bergerac an unmissable theatrical event. As an audience we are left to imagine the famous nose for ourselves, so we are not distracted from McAvoy’s skilful navigation of the complex verse, delivered mostly in his native accent, but with an impressive impersonation of Christian in the most famous scene.
Anita-Joy Uwajeh as Roxanne and Eben Figueiredo as Christian succeed in not being overshadowed by the title character, both giving strong and heartfelt performances. Jamie Lloyds staging of Cyrano de Bergerac may prove to be as divisive as the upcoming election, but no one can deny it is a bold and brave reimagining of a classic, and with innovative ticketing schemes in place, should genuinely make theatre more accessible.