Cyrano de Bergerac

Credit: David James McCarty

The legendary play Cyrano de Bergerac has had many dalliances with popular culture, most famously in the silver screen adaptation, Roxanne, starring Steve Martin. Behind its timeless appeal are the age-old themes of love, devotion and the power of poetry. Sport for Jove’s translation of the Edmond Rostand classic captures the essence of the play and transports the setting to the Great War era, albeit with some historically inaccurate references and a few outlandish events. Cyrano de Bergerac is the universally appealing tale of a man so fraught with self-consciousness about his appearance that the only way he can communicate with his beloved is by conveying his words through a more attractive third party.

The latest production by the up and coming Surry Hills theatre company starts off as a rambunctious affair, transitioning gradually to the formal stage after the first few actors deliver their lines from the audience. Mimicking a night at the theatre, the actors appear on stage with Roxanne attracting the attention of all below as she perches from the upper balcony. As Christian becomes besotted with Roxanne from afar and vice versa, Cyrano bursts onto the stage with panache and bravado, challenging all before him to match his wit. Despite harbouring a deep-seated lack of confidence in his appearance due to his nose, Cyrano plays on this appendage to draw on no end of euphemisms, much to the delight of the surrounding crowd. When a duel erupts between Cyrano and a provocateur, the scene ends with the gathering making light work of Cyrano’s triumph, as the man is left to die behind a curtain.

The lighthearted approach of the first act is maintained in the second which takes place in the chef’s shop in the marketplace. In this setting, we are introduced to the main players that will shape the remaining drama. There’s the chef, whose love of words rivals Cyrano’s own and proves to be a loyal confidant of the trio of protagonists until the end. The Gascon cadets make an entrance in a particularly testosterone-filled scene, full of comradery and backslapping to demonstrate Cyrano’s entrenched stance as one of the boys. Cyrano and Roxanne come together for the first time in an awkward rendezvous under the distracted eye of Roxanne’s guardian. With their first encounter, we witness the familiarity between the couple and realise that Roxanne sees Cyrano more as a brother than a lover. Finally, Christian makes his singlet-clad entrance to audition for a spot with the cadets, taunting Cyrano with nose puns in a manner that seems beyond his intellect.

As the first half ends with the sirens of war yet to sound, the rhythm of the second part is distinctly impacted by the gravity of the perils to come. The poignancy of the bond between Cyrano and Roxanne is first felt in the third act which takes place outside of Roxanne’s house. After a few hilarious attempts by Christian to communicate with Roxanne, Cyrano adopts his shadow and delivers heartfelt lines that convey the power of Rostand’s original script. The performances of Damien Ryan and Lizzie Schebesta, who play Cyrano and Roxanne respectively, are perfectly matched during the exchanges and together with the beauty of Barry French’s set design, the scene becomes almost magical. Making no less memorable a contribution is the bumbling Scott Sheridan as Christian, whose clumsy entreaties to Roxanne merely end up earning him a firm rebuke. However, although there are moments of depth and intricacy in the drama, the pace of the play seems slightly disjointed with comic interruptions littering the scenes and making the production oscillate between drama and comedy.

The result is an entertaining three hours that does pass by quickly and is action packed but perhaps could have been enhanced by a more cohesive delivery. With the second half ending on a markedly different note to the first, the transition from comedy to tragedy seems a bit too forced and ill-spaced out. The almost slapstick approach taken to delivering some of the scenes is slightly out of place in an otherwise slick production. Nonetheless, tackling such a legendary piece of work with limited time, space and script is a difficult task and the details are not lost on the team at Sport for Jove. With most performers playing multiple characters, set pieces doubling as props for different acts and no time lost in the play without dialogue, director Damien Ryan really knows how to cram as much as he can into the limited resources available.

By Revelly Robinson

Cyrano de Bergerac, played at the Canberra Playhouse, 28 June to 1 July 2017, Play length: Act 1 – 1 hour 20 minutes, Act 2 – 1 hour 30 minutes

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