Friday 13 August 2010

That giant toe attached to his face

Cyrano de Bergerac, White Bear Theatre, London

Any director working at the White Bear knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles. This is a flat, stubborn space in which to work; so small, one wonders how any director has the guts to stage anything other than a two-hander and so cramped, one wonders if an audience could endure anything longer than skit. Perhaps this is why Simon Evans’ production of Edward Rostand’s Cyrano De Bergerac works so well: both director and writer seem to relish near-impossible challenges (how to translate a big, busy play onto a tiny stage; how to transform a man with a huge conk into a romantic hero) and both meet their challenges head on, with lashings of panache.

Economy of scale is key to this show’s success. It is a term that applies to director Evans’ savvy use of a slimmed down but finely choreographed ensemble; to designer Kate Matthew’s efficiently evocative set (a sweep of red cloth suggests the danger and romance of the Siege of Arras; an ornate garden chair, surrounded by golden autumn leaves, imitates Cyrano’s blazing but fading spirit) and to the actors’ detailed, beautifully accented but restrained performances. In fact, the only thing allowed to expand in this production is Cyrano’s infamous nose, which resembles an enormous big toe, tacked onto actor Gwilym Lloyd’s face.

In the opening vignette, rather than overcrowding the stage with a cramped crowd scene, Evans invokes 16th century Paris by effectively placing his actors on a conveyor belt. Round and round, the small ensemble traverses the stage; a street seller here, two frisky lovers embracing over there, a fight erupting in the corner, some drunks slumped in the shadows. With just a few rotations of his cast, Evans brings a bustling, bawdy Parisian backdrop into life.

Ranjit Bolt’s translation is just as efficient and ebullient as Evans’ direction. His is a sharp, concentrated script and although Bolt sticks faithfully to the rhyming verse format throughout, the writing never loses its pace and spontaneity. The quips are sparky but unlaboured: ‘Go up and claim your kiss/ I’m not comfortable with this.’ Bolt is also confident enough to occasionally drop the poetic flourishes, in favour of peculiarly simple but emotionally persuasive lines: ‘You want to see perfection? Just watch her smile.’

The cast, aided by intelligent and controlled work from both the director and writer, seem comfortable and confident – but liberated, too. Their performance styles are nuanced, each part injected with real individual flair, but the actors also work seamlessly as a group. At times, the ensemble seems more dance troupe than company of actors and they move with a synchronised, fluid grace. When the dashing but poetically-challenged suitor, Christian (Phillip Scott Wallace has been cast perfectly; he has the kind of watery, handsome features that belong to a Disney hero), dares to defy Cyrano and mention his nose, the terrified soldiers move as one; they cover their eyes collectively in horror, their nervous bodies shift in synch and they gasp and groan in harmony. 

There is also a much-needed air of spontaneity about the play’s comedy. Each actor has found his own, unique comic style; Ben Higgins, as baker Rageneau, has a great line in sweeping slapstick, Phillip Scott Wallace’s keeps thing straight and his Christian is much funnier for it and the chorus girls stick with good old-fashioned vaudeville comedy, wiggling their eyebrows, breasts and booties with gusto. 

Iris Roberts transforms Cyrano’s love interest, Roxana, into a surprisingly modern creation: she has a fierce, edgy energy that keeps her performance blazing from start to finish and a striking, contemporary way of delivering her punch-lines. Roberts’ comic timing is spot on and she lingers over strange words at will, bringing lines alive in unexpected (but always useful) places. Gwilym Lloyd never lets his performance slip into silliness (this could’ve been a pale imitation of Mark Rylance’s Valere, in the recent ‘Bete’) and his flinty, proud, belligerent Cyrano is rarely a figure of fun – even with that giant toe attached to his face.


Till 4 September 2010


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The Stage
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National Theatre
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Royal Shakespeare Company
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