It’ll have to be short [spoilers for Cyrano de Bergerac]

Tonight I went to the latest NT Live transmission (it’s apparently going to be a very sparse spring as the next one is in May). I could have seen this play — with James McAvoy in the title role — while I was in London, and chose not to, and I think that turned out to have been the right decision — although I would see this again if there were another transmission in reasonable driving distance. I was thankfully able to see this one in my hometown cinema instead of having to drive to the capital city.

Why this reaction? Because even apart from a very distinctive adaptation written by Martin Crimp, this is clearly Regietheater, a genre that I experience a fair amount of impatience with. Let’s be clear that I didn’t miss the fake nose or the period costumes one bit, but when the play started with techno-influenced chant (think Enigma) and then segued into rapping, I thought “this will get tedious fast.” It did. I found the introduction of the characters contrived and faky (it counterintuitively emphasized the in-your-face, diversity-minded casting, which is actually supposed to remove race as a category from one’s mind rather than highlighting it). I also felt there were way too many people on stage, and that the laborious, penetrating rhyme — although presumably intended to imitate the meticulous rigidity of the French original — added nothing to the story. (I’m not a fan of rap music, either; maybe if you enjoyed rap or hip hop you would love it.) My reaction after the first act was “James McAvoy is talented but this play is trying so hard that it’s annoying.” To my mind, this is the general problem with Regietheater — unless the alternate world created is seamless, which is hard to achieve, it’s almost impossible to lose yourself in the play as it constantly prompts the viewer to (a) ask what the director was trying to say and (b) analyze whether it really works. There’s another starkly minimalist, but cramped, stage design from Soutra Gilmour (of The Crucible) which enhances the impression that there’s a message we should be receiving. I didn’t initially buy the didactic approach to what is supposed to be a highly emotional and romantic tragedy, although I warmed up to it later.

The script worked better once the crowd got off the stage, in Act 2, where four to five principals rotate chairs in order to advance the plot in a series of tête-à-têtes. There are a few moments where McAvoy (and the audience watching him) really gets his money’s worth from the play, and one of them is the part of the scene where he takes over the speaking from Christian (the lackluster Eben Figueiredo, who seems to fully personify the pretty-face no-charisma qualities of the character he’s playing) and gets dangerously self-involved in the verbiage of his narration of his feelings for Roxane (a strong performance from Anita-Joy Uwajeh). It was at this point that I finally began to see the point of the hip-hop script: In part, Crimp is trying to say something generally about the nature of poetry and the significance of rhythm/rhyme as a fashionable mode — it seems to be, more or less, “humans can’t get along without rhyme.”

After the intermission, Act 3 is largely a success as well (apart from a silly interlude where his comrades chant Cyrano’s name), giving us another striking scene from McAvoy, when he is forced to reveal to Christian that he’s been spamming Roxane with love letters and crossing battle lines to get them to her. This is really one of the strongest moments of the script. At this point, I also started to see what Crimp was setting up as the basis of the real tragedy of the work: that Christian is practically a character that Cyrano is writing, one whose embodiment takes all his attention and without whom he can’t be fully creative. If Roxane is the muse, Christian is the inescapable vehicle. A discussion of whether two men can embody one person, which ends in an ambivalent but intensely moving same-sex kiss, makes clear that Cyrano the author can neither separate from this character nor join with him. Yet Cyrano the soldier must, as Roxane, who wants to see Christian, surprisingly reappears behind enemy lines. I had just started to think “this is a profoundly interesting point” when they moved into a juvenile staging of the battle scene with voices from offstage. Blerg.

Overall, for me, the play only circumvented the general problems of Regietheater periodically. The staging of Act 4 fully demonstrated this problem, with a few profound moments almost overwhelmed by a juvenile “meaningfulness” that has nothing to do with Rostand’s story and everything to do with our own preoccupations. It started off with a dead character sitting front and center stage the whole time, between Roxane and Cyrano. (Why do directors still do this? So junior high school). Crimp also takes the opportunity in Act 4 to comment on the transformations of style in seventeenth-century French theatre away from rhyme and toward prose — Corneille, Racine, Molière — which, like, dude, whatever, almost no one cares anymore. Cyrano’s final speeches are transformed in doggerel / “a man walked into a bar” jokes that are supposed to be profound but end up feeling sterile (perhaps that’s Crimp’s intent). There’s also a very clichéd ending (with Cyrano being unable to speak the word “word,” which if you know the subject of the play is such a heavily freighted decision that it goes well beyond self-conscious postmodernism and deeply into the realm of kitsch). Given the emphasis throughout this adaptation of the play on the characters’ (hypocritical) disdain for sentimentality, why jerk the viewer around in this way?

But the fourth act does save itself in two ways. First, it’s again McAvoy who delivers a fearless and affecting performance as the wounded Cyrano, his fire re-ignited by the news that Roxane has kept “Christian’s” last letter with her all these years. This is key to the other thing that saved the play for me — my warm-up to the didacticism — which is that the end of the play seems to reveal that McAvoy is substantially more in love with his own prose than he has ever been with Roxane. A lot of things come together here: the decision to leave McAvoy with his own nose, so that it’s clear that Cyrano’s problems with his appearance are primarily in his own mind, an excuse to descend into art at the expense of life; the way it hits you when Roxane turns toward Cyrano for (I think) the first time in the play that Cyrano only ever speaks the emotional lines he directs to Roxane to the audience, which leaves the impression that he’s primarily speaking in his own head; the way the script alters the ending (in the original, Roxane realizes that Cyrano was the poet and he denies it; here Cyrano reveals that he was the poet and Roxane denies it before realizing angrily that it must be true); the defanging of the way that Roxane’s virginity plays into her lovability by making her Guiche’s prostitute. The real tragedy, then, was not Cyrano’s failure to realize that Roxane might love him in spite of his nose but rather his decision to remain in the preoccupied world of words rather than attempting to love the real Roxane, even after Christian’s death.

As usual I found myself whether Armitage could have achieved this — especially given his own apparent worries about his nose (a play too close to home?). When McAvoy isn’t struggling to get around all the metaphorical confetti the script keeps throwing around him (especially in Acts 1 and 4), this is a bravura performance. I sense Armitage perhaps being (negatively) sensitive to the self-consciously performative moments of the play, particularly the long narrations where Cyrano seems to be speaking directly to the audience. (Astrov didn’t get to break the fourth wall in Vanya although all the other major characters did.) I don’t know. I’d be interested to find out.

~ by Servetus on February 21, 2020.

15 Responses to “It’ll have to be short [spoilers for Cyrano de Bergerac]”

  1. Thank you for your review, you made me aware of several interesting things. I saw it yesterday and Regietheater worked for me this time. And I’m German and nearly exclusively go to see theatre in London because of the German approach. I don’t want it too often, but the focus on the words, backed up with the music, movements and rhythm gave it a ballet like feeling which caught me. Seldom I was drawn in like with Cyrano’s love declaration, absolutely impressive.
    The second part was way too slow for me and the people around me got twitchy as well. I was very annoyed with the ending. They changed that Roxane knew he had written the letters. So she stayed a shallow, ignorant woman, and that they still didn’t talk to each other left me really angry. Yes, it was probably done to enhance that there never was a true connection between them, they were too self focused, but so the dying scene left me cold, beside the fury about the denial of the development of Roxane’s character. Everything was so updated, diverse and consciously set, but the female lead stayed superficial and stupid. Not the price I want to pay to get the message through.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting about our different reactions to Regietheater. I sometimes like it if it’s not so penetrating (as it was here), but honestly I prefer the stripped-down version of classical productions rather than adding new elements to them.

      I could not get past the stupid scripting of the dying scene (that he couldn’t finish the sentence “the hero gets the word” and we were supposed to wonder if it was that he was dying and physically unable to say it, or emotionally unable to say it). As far as Roxane went — I felt like she did change — she became cynical. She started reading prose, she had “fucked dozens of men”. She just didn’t change in terms of her lack of sensitivity to what men wanted from her (which was okay with me).

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  2. I forgot: I dreamt about the play tonight and added a mother, who worked in a hospital and let people die. Obviously not enough death and drama for my dark German soul.

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    • weird!

      I’ve been dreaming lately about my car getting frozen into a snowbank (realistic fear this time of year around here) but unrelated to any art / culture I’ve been consuming.

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  3. What! No false nose!? I must admit that I dislike modernised theatre generally, mostly on a superficial aesthetic level – I like to see men in tights, or in Cyrano’s case, feathered hats and pantaloons. The arrogance of altering a playwright’s work, and the idea that plays have to be updated and seen through a contemporary prism, in order for audiences to relate to them also aggravates me. But then, I haven’t seen this version and have heard good things about it.
    I doubt that RA will ever play Cyrano.

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    • I guess I can’t generalize about adaptations (since many famous historical plays are already adaptations of other stories, e.g., much of Shakespeare). I like them when they’re well done, which for me means I’m not always thinking about the adaptation as opposed to the play. The original play in this case falls in the realm of “much too soppy” for me, which this is mostly not. McAvoy is the reason to see this one imo.

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    • I thought it was a totally inspired interpretation. I loved how the spoken word style worked, and felt it was exactly the correct style to bring Rostand’s rhyming couplets into the 21st century.

      I’m not sure the nose issue was supposed to be in CdeBs head as he got so many jokes and responses about it.

      Interesting to read your review. I studied the original at uni and thought this was the best of all the versions I’ve seen.

      Just tried to picture RA in the lead role. Much as I love him I just don’t think he would have a strong enough presence but perhaps I would change my mind if I watched the Hobbit again and relived his presence in that.

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      • I think you would have to love the rap style going into it already. I don’t (don’t like it, also don’t like its political connotations).

        I don’t think we ever had any evidence that Cyrano’s nose was actually huge, just a lot of jokes about how one shouldn’t mention it. To me that pointed to him being sensitive about something that wasn’t already true.

        I had read the original in grad school in a cultural history course, but never seen a live staging. TBH I don’t love the original story anyway, and I went b/c this was NT Live and b/c of McAvoy.

        I think you get at the thing that is the question in my mind — whoever played Cyrano in this version would have to be comfortable with steering / provoking. I don’t see Armitage in that light on stage. He’s comfortable playing a role in an ensemble that sometimes pushes him forward, but driving the action on doesn’t seem to be his thing.

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  4. Interesting adaptation. I think I’d like to see it even if it does sound strange to hear Cyrano in English 🙂
    But I like Mc Avoy acting so why not ?
    I was wondering how “la tirade du nez” would sound in english, though :

    Liked by 1 person

  5. […] production and performances and is also an alternative to the mainstream reviews, have a look at meandrichard – another wordpress […]

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  6. Americans can see it in NYC.

    https://variety.com/2020/legit/news/james-mcavoy-bringing-cyrano-de-bergerac-to-bam-1203523575/

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  7. I’m def pleased saw on screen rather than live. Cheaper. Plus think got to see facial expressions which would have missed in the theatre. Not wowed by it!

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    • The only play I’ve seen both on screen and in person was “The Crucible” (2014) with Armitage. They were such different events that it would be really difficult to compare.

      Liked by 1 person

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