Cyrano – a contemporary adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac playing at the Melbourne Theatre Company – is another tour de force from Virginia Gay that tempts us with a romantic, all-consuming love fired by intellectual and creative connection. It is clever, witty, challenging, funny, touching and thought-provoking. It’s like a great first date – you get caught up talking and don’t even notice until the place starts closing around you.
The dying days of the lockdowns were particularly bad for live theatre, with a schedule that Covid could crash through at any time, causing cancellations, rescheduling and the loss of untold works in development. One of the victims was the 2021 MTC production of Gay’s Cyrano. On opening night, with three hours to go, the state government announced a sixth lockdown and the show was forced to close.
Elizabeth Gadsby’s design sets Cyrano in the back of a bombed-out old theatre, with brick walls and exposed piping painted black, rendered so finely that it takes me a minute to realise this isn’t just the open back wall of the theatre. When the lights go up on this performance there is a burst of applause. This isn’t uncommon at the MTC but it’s usually reserved for the reveal of a particularly magnificent set. In this case, it feels like relief at finally seeing this show make its way triumphantly to the stage.
Fictionalised from the real life of Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, Rostand’s play has been reinterpreted many times, most notably in my memory in Fred Schepisi’s 1987 rom-com Roxanne, with Steve Martin as Cyrano. Gay’s version hums with the presence of earlier adaptations. It takes the original text, places it in conversation with its subsequent adaptations and subjects it to a re-evaluation on contemporary terms.
The writing is self-aware in a postmodern and vaudevillian way, breezily demonstrating a deep knowledge of the original – “Panache? Good word!” – and in the titular role, Gay is perfectly comfortable breaking the fourth wall to comment on the unfolding action or to joke with the front row. The actor’s self-aware Cyrano exists in a primarily dramaturgical space that uses the mechanics of poetry and theatre, stock characters, Greek chorus, rhythm and melody to interrogate and orchestrate a solution to the problem of Roxanne.
This is not a likeable Cyrano: she’s all purposeful stalking and coiled tension, the kind of person who gets right up in your face when you’re talking to them, whose mood swings and flashes of anger are seen as signs of brilliance. Something of a bully, in fact. This Cyrano is the warrior poet, ready to wit and ready to sword.
Gay is magnetic on stage: you can’t not watch her. Like the greats of the Australian stage, a Ruth Cracknell or Pamela Rabe, she takes your attention in her fist and does not let go. But there’s also great joy in her presence, a talent for physical comedy and sharp vaudeville that reminds me of Grahame Bond.
It’s clear that Cyrano is not ashamed of her attraction to Roxanne nor her own sexuality, and though she isn’t ignorant of the politics of the time – then and now – she isn’t cowed by them either. Though the character’s famously oversized proboscis is early on presented as a sore spot – a feint towards the idea of physical beauty being the measure of a person – the true horror for Cyrano is that Roxanne will reject her. This is the classic flaw of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac: his inability to see past his own perceived otherness and his veneration of beauty.
Gay asks us to see the victims of the original as Roxanne and Christian. Here they both begin as thoroughly unlikeable stereotypes, shallow and witty for Roxanne, brutish and dumb for Yan, this play’s version of Christian. These are arch parodies that Cyrano has created for her amusement or problem-solving, or both, twisted reflections of the perfection Cyrano sees herself as unworthy of. Tuuli Narkle and Claude Jabbour have their work cut out to keep up with Gay but once they’re no longer reduced by Cyrano’s strategising, they become more genuinely realised. We see Roxanne as a righteously enraged and betrayed young woman and Yan as a kind of lost lamb realising he’s just being used.
Milo Hartill, Robin Goldsworthy and Holly Austin provide excellent comic support as the chorus. Theirs is the broad, physical and character work of comedy relief combined with the dramaturgical commentary of the Greek chorus, and they each move between these roles seamlessly.
Sarah Goodes’ direction includes some gimmicky staging that is variably successful. A rollerskating sequence, for instance, introduces Roxanne in spectacular fashion but doesn’t feel totally organic to the environment or the character. There is some clever staging as well: a string of lights attached to the rising balcony is a magically simple but effective transformation.
Cyrano is denied his canonically tragic ending. Gay points out how Roxanne’s hand is forced by Rostand’s dramaturgy, made to forgive Cyrano for his deception because he’s dying. It’s a diabolus ex machina that lets Cyrano off the hook: he never needs to reckon with what he did. This Cyrano strategises her relationship with Roxanne using Yan as a heterosexual substitute, puppeteering them both into vicariously living out her own complex desires and anxieties, and she’s called out by Roxanne for being a gaslighter, catfisher, and worse.
The John Waters-esque ending, colourful, glittery and impressive as it is, still doesn’t earn redemption. A well-choreographed, showy gesture wins the heart of the object of desire. Perhaps it’s necessary to give the audience the feel-good ending they’ve come to expect but it undercuts the work being done otherwise to interrogate the original. The unnamed chorus member who comments throughout on epic tragedy is right: for this play to deliver on its ethics, no one can end up happy. Well, maybe Chorus Member Three and Yan, who observe tellingly that you don’t have to over-complicate everything.
Still, if it’s a choice between Rostand’s grimdark “everybody dies” ending and an ’80s high school movie-style “the right people all get together” finale, maybe we could all use a little less of the grimdark.
There are a few songs scattered throughout but, as a horrified Cyrano is reassured, this isn’t a musical. More’s the pity, because the music is beautiful: simply staged and wonderfully performed. I would have liked more of it. I also rather miss the swordplay that I associate with Cyrano de Bergerac. Wasn’t there some swashbuckling? Am I alone in wanting to see Virginia Gay’s best José Ferrer, duelling with rapier wit and real rapier?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2022 as "Inner beauty".
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