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Virginia Gay’s new gender-flipped adaptation of the French classic Cyrano de Bergerac  takes the tragedy out of the comedy. By Peter Craven.

Actor Virginia Gay

Actor Virginia Gay.
Credit: Harvey House Productions

Virginia Gay is best known for her television roles in All Saints and Winners &Losers. But the theatre-going world remembers the authority she brought to such shows as the premiere of Eddie Perfect’s The Beast and how, in a bold act of appropriation and transfiguration, she made the title role in the Wild West musical Calamity Jane her own.

Now she’s starring in her own adaptation of the Edmond Rostand’s hyper-romantic French classic Cyrano de Bergerac, which opens at the end of this month at the Melbourne Theatre Company. She’s taking the title role of the guy with the huge nose who writes lyrical love letters for his hunk of a mate so that he can win the lovely Roxanne. José Ferrer won an Oscar for his Cyrano in 1951, and Ralph Richardson and Gérard Depardieu have both played the role, Depardieu delivering Rostand’s rhyming couplets as if he were carving them on the tombstone of the gloire of France.

Gay is playing the extravagant wordsmith Cyrano as a queer woman. She has given the play a happy ending and she says she also wants to give agency back to Roxanne. It all began when she saw a performance at the National Theatre in London.

“I saw a production of Cyrano – before the lockdown – with James McAvoy and got what might have been the last ticket to the whole thing at Thursday at 2pm … James McAvoy was fucking extraordinary,” she says. “I remember thinking, ‘Good luck, Mister Handsome Movie Star’, because he was doing it without a nose.

“I thought that was bold because of how handsome he was and so magnetic, and I thought of how the role requires such extraordinary theatrical dexterity, you have to be such a physical performer … About a scene and a half in, I thought: ‘I have to play this role.’ Because what happens when you take the nose away is that you see somebody who’s decided that they’re unworthy of love and the nose becomes a metaphor for the body that betrays you.

“And that’s the story we teach women: that somehow their bodies aren’t good enough, if only they were prettier it would be easier, if only they were smaller. And of all that energy that goes into making women feel unsafe in their own bodies. And it’s also the story of the queer body, that this incredible creature could never love me because I’m deformed – all those tormented love affairs we all have in our teens and 20s. ‘You couldn’t love me, I’m in the wrong body for you.’ You know, how we find the solution of becoming best friends and how that’s almost enough to live on. Anyway, it was revealed to me incredibly quickly that I had to play this role and it had to be a woman.”

When she came back after interval, she realised the tragicomedy’s desolating evocation of the sadness of love and of the gulf between desire and fulfilment shattered her idea.

“I went out at interval and bought two copies of the Martin Crimp adaptation and I went through my Rolodex of directors in my heads and thought, I’ll take it to Sarah Goodes, because we’ve been looking for a show to do together for ages. I thought, Done. It’s sorted in my brain.

“But then it all went haywire. In Act IV and V of Cyrano everybody dies. And I left thinking, ‘Well, I can’t actually do this show, because I won’t be part of any storytelling that says, kill your gays, or says queer love is impossible, when these people who are obviously perfect for each other just need to get over themselves and find a happy ending.”

Goodes had the obvious solution. “She said with such ease, ‘Well, it’s out of copyright. You’ll just have to write your own adaptation.’ And I said, ‘Okay.’ And I was bowled over by her belief in me.”

And then, about three weeks later, the world ground to a halt and Gay found herself alone in California.

“I thought, ‘Well, I have nothing but time right now,’ ” she says. “And that’s what I did when I was isolated in LA. I just wrote. I had never had the discipline before. I just desperately needed, as we all did at that time, internal structure, because we weren’t getting any external structure.

“I was just completely alone in a city where I knew fairly few people and it was essentially me writing to achieve the kind of connection I needed. And I realised that Cyrano is a person who isolates themselves to protect something they love.

“It’s the story of 2020 – we all know this feeling – Cyrano does it wrongly because they feel unworthy or feel they could never be loved back, but that feeling of ‘I will keep myself closed so that you, the thing that I love, are not hurt.’ That’s the thing the entire world is going through. That made it startlingly clear to me that this had to be written right now and it had to have a happy ending.”

I tell Gay that Cyrano is one of the supreme roles for a character actor, the most romantic role for the actor who plays Falstaff rather than Hamlet. “Absolutely,” she says. “I’ve always thought of myself as a character actor.”

She agrees that the play is a preposterous set-up that reveals extraordinary emotional truth. “If the show works, it’s as a metaphor,” she says. “We all have a version of ourselves where we see ourselves as Cyrano and the rest of the world as Christian, always getting what they want. That separation of mind and body is dramatised in the show.”

The conversation shifts for a minute to the counterpoint between typecasting and breaking the mould. Calamity Jane, the most lustrous of Gay’s stage roles, was originally played by Doris Day and conventional casting would automatically give the part to someone such as Christie Whelan Browne. Gay was more interested in restoring the historical figure behind the blonde in the movie. “Doris Day’s version of Calamity is fabulous and I grew up on it,” she says. “But if you actually look at the real Martha Jane Cannary, she’s a fabulous butch. She’s broad shouldered, she’s hulking, she’s got this massive square jaw. She’s a hard-living, foul-mouthed queer icon.”

She laughs at her own career. “I’ve got this Mount Rushmore of a face,” she says. “I’ve got these big features built for the back row, built for the gods, built for the stage. And to everyone’s astonishment I went straight from drama school into four years of All Saints followed by Winners & Losers.”

We talk for a while about the fact that typecasting suggests Gay should stick to the Ethel Merman repertoire – “the human trumpet”, as Patrick White called her – with her voice of pure brass and tough butch-ish manner. Merman was the original Annie in Annie Get Your Gun and Rose in Gypsy. Gay says she’d love to do Sail Away, but she was put off Annie Get Your Gun by the dodgy song about “the Indians” and, besides, “Ethel Merman is Ethel Merman. I’m interested in being Virginia Gay.” She adds the old motivational quote, “Be yourself, because everybody else is taken.”

Gay says changing worlds creates different perspectives. “It’s just shining a light from a different angle so you get different shadows and different fucken rainbows.” She adds that there is also a potential queer narrative within the original Calamity Jane show. “There’s that beautiful relationship between Calamity and Katie Brown.”

She digresses to rhapsodise about the story’s relationship to live theatre, both from its inception and now in the context of the lockdowns. “Cyrano starts in a theatre. It problematises the concept of authorship,” she says.

“The thing we couldn’t do during the pandemic was all sit together in a room and experience something that’s happening in real time in front of us, breathing the same air, taking in the same pheromones. There’s something that happens watching live theatre that’s akin to a live sporting event. While I will forever be grateful to Netflix for getting me through the pandemic, it’s a different relationship to a story.”

Her adaptation isn’t a musical but it does contain songs, including new works written for the show by Tuuli Narkle. On the one hand, Gay wants to give Melbourne audiences the sensuous delight of song, dance, music and light. On the other, she’s fascinated by the idea of putting music in the mouth of the word-obsessed Cyrano.

“Music is also a window into Cyrano’s soul,” she says. “Cyrano is wary of cliché and sentiment. I was interested in exploring how Cyrano can express herself through song. A song is something that happens when you feel so much that words are not enough.

“We try to keep music for truth, if that makes sense – emotional truth. Words are the very things that betray Cyrano. This is a show about longing and a show about how you reach for those you cannot touch. And that feeling of longing is something that collectively the entire world went through.”

It’s fascinating to listen to this formidable woman attempting to keep all these coloured balls of her Cyrano in the air. Gay has a lot of breadth: you can tell that her idea of drama is aligned with a desire to reshape, to reconfigure.

Of all the cross-gender roles she has in her sights, Frank-N-Furter from The Rocky Horror Show looms largest. “I think it’s time for a female Frank-N-Furter, ‘transsexual from Transylvania’,” she says. “He could come down into anybody and be that demented sex god.”

I ask her about the Me Too movement and her response is tough and uncompromising. “I think any voice that has been silenced, feeling that it has the authority and support and needs to be heard is an extremely valuable thing. The way that has permeated through all of society is magnificent. I think I’ve seen extraordinary change and hope and people analysing themselves, making positive change in their communities. I think that’s a wonderful thing.”

She doesn’t want to qualify that at all?

“I think it’s not appropriate for me to qualify something when I know so many people who’ve suffered as a result of poor behaviour in my industry,” she says. “I think now is the time for collective support of those voices being heard.”

Gay grew up in inner Western Sydney and says she had the advantage of school-teacher parents who took her to see lots of theatre and afterwards talked to her about how it worked.

So what was the first show that enchanted her? “I actually know that!” she says with glee. “I saw a production of Cats when I was at my preschool, maybe I was four, and I went the next day and said, ‘Guys, we’re putting on a production of Cats. I will direct it, everybody will make their own costumes, and I will play the Rum Tum Tugger’, because I thought Rum Tum Tugger was the coolest cat. And there’s a photo of me with a cereal box guitar and an approximated cat’s head on.”

The encompassing nature of how Gay sees the business of writing and putting on a show leaves you with a sense of wonder at this woman who will tinker with any masterpiece in the name of her burning vision. A happy ever after, gay, female Cyrano de Bergerac, a triumph of love against self-hatred, in the context of the yearning of the plague times. Why not?

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 10, 2021 as "Gay Cyrano, sera".

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Peter Craven is a literary and culture critic.