Review: Cyrano De Bergerac (Sydney Theatre Company)

Venue: Sydney Theatre at Walsh Bay (Sydney NSW), Nov 11 – Dec 20, 2014
Playwright: Edmond Rostand (adapted by Andrew Upton)
Director: Andrew Upton
Cast: Alan Dukes, Gabriel Gilbert-Dey, George Kemp, Dale March, Josh McConville, Kenneth Moraleda, Eryn Jean Norvill, Yalin Ozucelik, Michael Pigott, Richard Roxburgh, Chris Ryan, Bruce Spence, Emily Tomlins, Aaron Tsindos, David Whitney, Julia Zemiro
Images by Brett Boardman

Theatre review (originally published at Auditorium Magazine)
A star is more than a celebrity. Richard Roxburgh is one of Australia’s greatest actors, the kind who seems to be able to turn everything he touches into gold. It is no wonder then, that Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is once again revived, with Roxburgh in the title role. Cyrano’s magical gift with words, coupled with his extraordinarily tenacious and passionate unrequited love for Roxane, provides a foundation for a performer to demonstrate his wealth of talents, and as director Andrew Upton puts it, “Richard’s wit, his erudition, his depth, his classical nous and – as he showed in Waiting For Godot last year – his capacity for clowning. They’re all on show here.”

Upton’s production for the 896-seat Sydney Theatre is ambitious in scale, but the show depends heavily on the efficacy of its singular, central character. Cyrano remains in focus for the entire duration, even in his brief moments off stage. That omnipresence requires of the actor a magnetism that captures our imagination, empathy and admiration, and Roxburgh’s powerful capacities as a star of the stage are brilliantly showcased here. His telling of the classic tale has an intellectual and emotional resonance that sheds new light on an old story, restoring a jaded love story back to the swooning masterpiece that befits its canonical status. Perfectly cast as the romantic figure with a rough exterior, Roxburgh is a leading man whose appeal lies with his talent, and whose allure is about ability rather than physicality. He is easily convincing as an ugly man, not because we ever think of him that way, but because his looks were never relevant to his acclaim. Roxburgh can play Cyrano, or the handsomest man in the world, and we would not question his validity.

The production’s comedy takes on many shades, from the very silly to the very dark, from the cerebral to the deeply ironic. Roxburgh’s versatility and sensitivity to the plot’s transfigurations guide us through an engrossing journey that retains a sense of humour even through pits of war and death. Upton’s adaptation and direction give Cyrano de Bergerac a radical update that reflects modern sensibilities. It insists that romance is still alive, but our relationship with it has evolved. The narrative is the same, but in order that the play’s original intentions may be uncovered, the story is told differently. Indeed, the show is overwhelmingly romantic. We love Cyrano, Roxane, and their tortured tale of mistaken identities, unrequited and lost love, but even more, we love Cyrano’s words. They cut through space and speak to our hearts, and we are moved the same way Roxane is moved. She attributes the letters and poetry to the vacuous Christian, but how we channel those wondrous evocations become entirely personal, and this is where connection happens. Upton does not shy from the grand sentimentality of the piece, but his work never feels schmaltzy. Great care is taken to steer emotions away from the cheap and inauthentic, and what we witness, although highly theatrical and dramatically intense, has a believability that associates closely with our personal experiences.

Playing Roxane is Eryn Jean Norvill, who injects an intelligent dignity to a part that can easily be interpreted dull and ornamental. Much is made of Roxane’s beauty and her many suitors, but her search for love is portrayed with an insistence for an intellectual equal. Norvill’s Roxane knows what she wants, and is determined to acquire it. Her work is quiet but solid, with a considered emphasis on the character’s earnest qualities. Her penultimate scene however, takes an unconvincing turn when she discovers her lover’s true identity much too suddenly. The scene works well in its pace and drama, but Roxane’s psychological transitions are quite implausible. Another character who goes through substantial transformations is the Comte de Guiche, performed with excellent aplomb by Josh McConville. The laughter he creates out of de Guiche’s vanity and haughty demeanour is a real joy, and his comic chemistry with members of cast is consistently impressive. McConville’s work in the final act is also remarkable, perhaps surprisingly so. After endearing us with consecutive scenes of flippancy, he returns a changed man at the end with a new gravity, quickly changing our attitude towards the Comte.

Alice Babidge’s set design provides levels and spaces within the very generous proscenium stage for Upton and his cast to tell a colourful and exciting story, but the creation of a first level catwalk around the perimeter is not visually resolved. The nondescript and generic dark grey areas are probably meant to disappear from sight but they are often jarring contrasts with Babidge’s own period costumes and set pieces on the lower level. It must be noted though, that costume design is beautifully and flamboyantly executed, with imaginative use of textures including leather, suede, velvet, brocade, feathers and lace, to create visions that are luxurious and vibrant. Also wonderful is Lauren A. Proietti’s wigs, worn by virtually all of the sixteen-strong cast. Her work is detailed, balanced and full of flair, giving an excellent polish to the presentation of each personality.

Classics are exhumed and rehashed more than often in Australia, but not always for good reason. They constitute a large portion of our main stage seasons, which in turn consigns new scripts to much smaller audiences, or never to be produced at all. New writers can tell new stories, and also old ones, but Andrew Upton proves with Cyrano de Bergerac that true masterpieces are rarely surpassed. Rostand’s play about broken hearts comes from a simple conceit, yet its access to our emotions is unequivocal. Many romances have traversed creative landscapes over the years, but Cyrano is uniquely moving. We all understand the feeling of inadequacy, and we have all experienced despondency. Many artists have attempted to capture those aspects of humanity, but it is the big nose that expresses things best.