where angels fear to tread

On Monday I went with my daughter to see James McAvoy play Cyrano de Bergerac. We booked the tickets last autumn as soon as they went on sale. We have already been lucky enough to see Mr McAvoy in ‘Three Days of Rain’, ‘Macbeth’ and ‘The Ruling Class‘. And, as with all those three previous plays, Cyrano is also a Jamie Lloyd/McAvoy collaboration. As it happens I have seen a traditional ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, back in 1992 at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, with Robert Lindsay as Cyrano and also a film adaptation, ‘Roxanne’ starring Steve Martin, but my daughter came to the play completely fresh.

Neither my daughter nor I had read any reviews of this latest production although we had seen five star indications flying past whilst scrolling through social media. We tried to ignore them as we didn’t want to have any preconceived ideas or expectations. As it turned out, rather unusually for us, we both had the same response to this version of the play.

Mr James McAvoy, Hollywood A-Lister at the top of his game, guarantees sell-out performances.

This is a play about poetry, about words, and about the beauty and power of words, but this was not a radio play, or a masked affair, it was a fully cast and staged production. As is usual choices were made: about costume, street-style; about props, contemporary plastic; about lighting, harsh and unforgiving and, of course, about the sound with the use of amplification. Although it was a minimal staging in modern dress, parts of this production were also very physical. All the actors wore discrete head mics and there was additional switching between these head mics and other cordless and wired stage microphones throughout the play. This had the effect of subtly adjusting tonal quality and volume adding extra contrast and intensity to the spoken words at different points of the drama. I assume this was a most considered choice to emphasise the importance of the text.

Microphones featured prominently in the minimal staging.

Interestingly and importantly the script is a new translation by the playwright Martin Crimp. There’s no stipulation in the 21st century to provide an equivalent, literal translation of a late-19th-century French text telling a 17th-century tale. To this end Crimp composes rhyming lines of contemporary language in a rap style enhanced in part with beatboxing. The pace and the punch of the first half of the play was thrilling and the delivery was augmented by the contrasting regional accents from the diverse ensemble. The intense, vigorous Glaswegian tones of James McAvoy seemed to add an almost physical layer to the sound. (Mind you I am a lover of Celtic accents and I could listen to Mr McAvoy read the phone book.)

I don’t think we consider contemporary versions of classic, well-known plays as revivals as such, especially with a new translation, but more as ‘a newly reworked production’ of said classic. Employing and amplifying a 21st-century linguist style to make a play more relevant for modern times was very successful. And, on the night we saw the play there was an immediate standing ovation for the cast and the performances. But . . . . and here it comes, yes, there was plenty of energy to showcase the words as I have mentioned above, but . . . . what about the nose? That very famous nose. It was a decision to have Cyrano with an implied, with an ‘acted’ enormous nose and not a theatrical prosthetic. However, I admit at one point l felt like Hans Christian Anderson’s small child viewing the Emperor as I watched a stunningly, physically attractive, charismatic, A-list Hollywood star giving without doubt an intensely, passionate and poignant performance as an afflicted Cyrano yet looking like a god had landed amongst mortals.

We humans are visual creatures. Sight is our dominant sense. A play is a combination of experiences and a staged production is usually more or less dependent on words and their delivery by actors, but we, the audience, are also reading all those non-verbal communications too. Non-verbal aspects of characters including physical appearance are surely central to an actor’s performance as well. To draw on physicality in this production and deliberately choose an uplifting diverse cast and yet require the audience to be blind to McAvoy’s undoubted physical charm and charisma and not mar his face with ‘the nose’ seemed perverse to me. It didn’t have to be a pantomime nose or even be particularly unrealistic, but just big enough for the powerfully, visually-dependent brain’s response to momentarily be interrupted and diverted to think physical disfigurement and not charismatic film star.

And, as we left the theatre my daughter (mid-twenties, infrequent theatre attendee, target audience?), turned to me and surprised me with her opinion questioning why he didn’t have a big nose.

I have now read the opinions of the professional critics who are not fazed by the ‘no nose’ issue. My daughter and I are aware that great theatre with great actors can be minimalist, just the performer and the words. It is after all about the suspension of disbelief. Theatre doesn’t need big sets and fancy costumes, but perhaps in this case a big nose is central to this play. Maybe it was our fault and we didn’t work hard enough to figure out the significance of the no prosthetic choice. We are just ordinary members of the theatre-going public, but neither of us could give this production fives stars. On this occasion my daughter and I go against the grain and venture where angels fear to tread and give it just three stars.

If you’d like to read another review which I think admirably sums up more about the production and performances and is also an alternative to the mainstream reviews, have a look at meandrichard – another wordpress blogger.

This West End run of Cyrano de Bergerac closes on Saturday, 29th February 2020.

Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

10 thoughts on “where angels fear to tread”

  1. That was a most interesting review. I have only seen the film so this’reworked’ version sounds like something special. Thanks for sharing your views and that of your daughter.

    1. I think the feeling these days is no classic is out of bounds for a radical rework. Some versions are more successful than others. This one certainly appealed to the largely youthful audience present.

  2. Great review, Agnes. Although I’ve never seen a staged production of Cyrano (shame on me), I totally agree with your comments about non-verbal cues and the absence of a nose. I’m reminded of the play “The Elephant Man,” which succeeds in this regard by having the young handsome actor portraying Joseph Merrick assume that man’s twisted posture. So yes indeed–a nose more than just a nose.

    1. So pleased you appreciated my words and thank you. And, you might well have forecast this, when discussing the nose issue and making an attempt to shore up my argument I did, indeed, refer to “The Elephant Man”. Great minds and all that!

  3. A very perceptive and more searching analysis than most “theatre critics ” would write Agnes. They usually write with their egos wheras you have written from the heart.

    1. That is very kind of you to say so, but hopefully I realise my limitations and don’t try to compete with the professionals. The trouble is on occasions I can get a bee in my bonnet and this was one such time. I guess we all add a little to the rich tapestry of life in our own way.

    1. Yes, I know it was really too close to the end of the run to be useful, but they might show the Live Cinema version again – perhaps? My sister and her husband did see it in a cinema down Devon way. Apparently the camera panned round the audience and showed a similar standing ovation to the one given on the night we went. My sister is a big Shakespeare fan, poetry lover and an Eng Lit graduate and, before I gave her the benefit of my lesser informed opinion, she also wondered at the no nose choice. Maybe it’s a generational thing. 🤔

  4. I saw this national theatre production on screen. I actually thought perhaps better on screen which may have missed at distance from stage? As say very minimalist so for me seeing facial expressions helped.

    1. I loved the minimalist production and we were lucky enough to be in the fourth row of the stalls, so I think the issue of ‘the nose’ or lack of it was even more pronounced as the McAvoy stardust rained down on us.

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