Edmond Rostand, adapted by Peter Oswald
Bristol Old Vic in association with Hong Kong Arts festival
Bristol Old Vic
Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac, the legendary 17th century polymath, was not only handy with a sword and words, but could create poetry while fighting at the same time. It is great fertile ground for the 19th century dramatist Edmond Rostand to base his swashbuckling hero on. Combining characters and stories from Cyrano’s real life with a touch of fiction, he created the French classic Cyrano de Bergerac.
In Rostand’s version, Cyrano, the leader of some cadets in Gascony, is madly in love with his cousin, Roxanne, a beautiful and educated romantic. Cyrano is popular and famed for his bravery and wit—his tongue is known to be as sharp as his sword. For all his skills as an intellectual, wordsmith and skilled fencer, however, Cyrano is excessively sensitive about the size of his nose. Believing this disfigurement makes him incapable of being loved, Cyrano keeps his love for Roxanne a secret from everyone.
Part tragedy, part romantic comedy, the scene is set for Bristol Old Vic’s latest version of Cyrano, adapted from Rostand’s original French into English verse by Peter Oswald. The play opens where it finishes with the aged Cyrano (Tristan Sturrock) and Roxanne (Sara Powell) surrounded by nuns (three of them bearded) reflecting on the events that brought them to the garden of the convent where Roxanne committed herself some 18 years before.
Flashing back to the moment when the young, good looking Christian (Patrycja Kujawska) joins Cyrano’s cadets, we see the moment when Christian and Roxanne catch each other’s eye. Roxanne confides to her cousin that she might be in love with Christian. Christian also lets Cyrano know that he feels he is in love with Roxanne. But, being more the non-talking type, he enlists Cyrano’s help to write love letters to her which, out of devotion to his secret love, Cyrano agrees to do.
The scene is set for the romance and comedy and ultimately tragedy to begin. As the relationship develops through the love letters, it is inevitable the two need to meet, but how to avoid Roxanne uncovering the subterfuge? Comically, Cyrano arranges that Christian woos his love at night from a distance so Roxanne cannot see that the words do not come from the younger man. But it is heartbreaking as we watch Cyrano’s conflicted agony magnifying. As the relationship develops, so does the intensity of feelings and the passion in his language but also his agony as his deceit of Roxanne deepens. Roxanne, more deeply affected with each encounter, falls ever more deeply in love, but, of course, with Christian.
Directed by Tom Morris, working again with designer Ti Green, who has developed a very basic stripped-back set, this latest version of the classic keeps to the original storyline but introduces some musical interludes from composer Adrian Sutton, including an audience sing-a-long. Slapstick from the tremendous support cast of Felix Hayes, Guy Hughes, Giles King and Miltos Yerolemou playing multiple roles and some of the instrumental accompaniment brings much of the comedy, as do the knowing comments and looks from the cast to the audience and the slow-motion fights. The funnier moments are those that arise out of the subterfuge between Cyrano and Christian.
Despite all this promise, this production doesn’t quite seem to hit each mark at the critical time. The pace seems rather drawn-out. The cast, and particular Sara Powell, are excellent, but many of the exchanges and the knowing asides fail to deliver the critical comic punch. The turning point in battle in the relationship between Christian and Cyrano feels rushed, dissipating the tragedy at having lost true love in both men’s lives.
In the final moments, two of literature’s most famous thwarted lovers reflect on their past. The agonising tragedy is revealed but is it too late? Here, the production hits the spot.
Reviewer: Joan Phillips