Cyrano de Bergerac
Playhouse Theatre, London ★★★★★
THERE are no prosthetic noses in Jamie Lloyd’s new production of the Edmond Rostand classic, so if you were wondering what James McAvoy looks like with a bulbous snout on his face, you won’t find the answer here. There’s not much of anything, in fact: no set to speak of and no props, apart from the odd microphone and plastic chair.
Rostand’s enduringly popular verse comedy about the olfactory-challenged soldier who conceals his ardour for Roxanne by writing her love letters on behalf of the hot but dim Christian is a play about role play and the theatre itself but Lloyd strips it of theatricality in every sense — there’s barely any physical action, or even much conventional acting, come to that. We’re left with the one thing Bergerac has: words.
The result is thrilling. McAvoy is spellbinding as Cyrano — a pugilistic soldier who hides his yearning poet’s soul and tortured self-loathing behind shaven-haired swagger, and whose growing anguish over Roxanne’s attachment to his rival (a beautifully gormless Eben Figueiredo) pierces the air.
Lloyd may have blanched the play of its usual antic physical comedy but the deception scene, in which McAvoy’s rough-hewn Glaswegian vowels abruptly mutate into Figueiredo’s east London Asian vernacular before talking simply straight from his heart, is first extremely funny and then deeply moving. And erotic — this is the most sexually charged production of Cyrano I’ve seen.
The cast is top notch. Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s lively, sensitive Roxanne, usually a passive receptacle for male attentions, is in Martin Crimp’s wittily knowing update an English literature student fully up to speed with modern theories about the male gaze.
Lloyd draws strongly on the conventions of slam poetry to fabulously muscular effect — much of this production feels like an extended rap battle — but also effectively uses sound and gesture counter-intuitively: the most emotionally charged scenes, including the battle at Arras, are tamped right down, paradoxically intensifying their impact.
It’s late in the day, but this is a last-minute contender for production of the year.