Cyrano de Bergerac review, Playhouse: A very good James McAvoy stars in a piercingly perceptive production

Paul Taylor
James McAvoy stars in 'Cyrano de Bergerac' at the Playhouse Theatre: Marc Brenner

Edmond Rostand’s play about the eponymous and nasally over-endowed poet has been endlessly revived and recycled since its premiere in 1897. Derek Jacobi and Gerard Depardieu have excelled, the former on stage, twanging the heartstrings as one of nature’s great go-betweens – swordsman and virtuoso, bearing a rapier wit in more senses than one – the latter on screen, putting a real sense of the outsize into Cyrano’s verbal rodomontade and urgent desire for rhinoplasty. You could well argue that since its emergence, the play has been destined to be set in a world of rap. Verse is used to compensate for a perceived physical deformity in Rostand’s drama, and for the intolerable silence of the oppressed in the art form’s black roots.​

Certainly, Edwin Morgan thought so in his racy Glaswegian-accented version for Communicado in the early 1990s. “I cannae rap,” revealed one of the fractious male divas of the play’s world of white factional politics and literary infighting. Roxane – the cousin whom Cyrano adores but feels too shy and disfigured to woo except by proxy – colloquially captured the link between the hero’s testy idealistic drive and the streak of low self-esteem occasioned by his conk when she said: “Inaction/ Get right up his nose, right to distraction.”

Jamie Lloyd now goes for broke on the rap front in this characteristically inventive and sometimes piercingly perceptive production. It stars James McAvoy – who imparts the romantically excruciated hero with a vivid vehemence – and uses a new text by Martin Crimp that is diabolically wily. It is alive, too, to the ways in which the play’s competitive versifying is the equivalent of a present-day poetry slam. The staging is austere and minimalist; a chaste vellum-resembling set with a stand-up mike. Wearing a black, quilted, torso-hugging jerkin, McAvoy effaces the effete. The large cast is diverse and very talented, even if the wit is sometimes too academic.

McAvoy is very good at conveying the awful vertigo of Cyrano’s reluctant but self-merciless masochism. He woos Roxane (an eagerly intelligent Anita-Joy Uwajeh) through the ardent romantic speeches that he ghost-writes for the man she thinks she fancies: the comparatively ordinary dreamboat Christian, very well performed by Eben Figueiredo​, with more mischievous self-awareness than is usually indicated.

I need to issue a spoiler alert before alluding to the considerable psychological twist that Crimp’s version gives to the triangle at the play’s heart. Normally, if there is a suggestion that there is anything bisexual in Cyrano’s proxy procedures, it is the hero who is deemed to be unconscious of this possible motivation. But here it is Christian who wises up to the desire arguably implicit in this odd epistolary menage a trois and winds up pressing lips with the baffled and unswitched-on hero.

There is one curious aspect to proceedings that makes me wonder if I missed something. From where I was sitting, McAvoy looked to be parading a proboscis no bigger than the attractive, normal-sized one he was given by nature. Has the threat of Brexit brought about a run on theatrical nose putty? I feel more sure of myself in declaring the show – which kicks off a season of Jamie Lloyd productions at the Playhouse that includes Jessica Chastain’s West End debut in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House – inspired in its minimalist eloquence. For the scene in which a pained Cyrano provides Christian with poetic prompts for his wooing of Roxane, this production arranged red community-centre chairs in the S-shape of a traditional loveseat. Nothing could be simpler or more profoundly potent.

And, given the plot twist I have described, it makes brilliant counterintuitive sense that – in the increased, lonely bewilderment of old age – Cyrano and Roxane mutter, mutually mystified, into microphones as though they were a pair of estranged old lovers in a radio play by Pinter.

This new season looks set for the kind of success Lloyd and company had last year with their marvellous Pinter retrospective. Bravo.