Review: “Cyrano de Bergerac” starring Joseph Fiennes

Joseph Fiennes as CyranoIt’s atypical to write a review of a play after it closes: perhaps such an item bears closer resemblance to an epitaph. However, it’s impossible for me to let a production of Cyrano de Bergerac to pass unnoticed.

I admit this is partially due to the fact that I am a Cyrano aficionado: this work has been an obsession of mine since an early age. I have several versions of the original and its translations, most of which were bought on sojurns to Paris; perhaps my most proud possession is a 1964 American hardback edition, which contains engraved prints of the various tableaux. I purchased it at a venerable place as well, namely, the Shakespeare Book Store near Notre Dame, which is where Ernest Hemingway bought his books.

I am compelled also, perhaps, because productions of Edmund Rostand’s classic are rare. There are good reasons for this; first, the running time of the play is in excess of 3 hours. The role of Cyrano is extremely taxing as a result: the sheer amount of verse that an actor has to memorise and portray with feeling is enormous. Furthermore, if it’s done in any other language besides French, it simply does not possess all of the author’s intent or meter. This issue is particularly troublesome as the play is comprised entirely of rhyming couplets. A good example of the problem arises from Cyrano’s “duelling poem”: in French, its refrain reads, “A la fin de l’envoie je touche!“. Its English counterpart, “At the end of the poem, I hit”, lacks a certain poetry, if not panache (a word imparted to the English language by Cyrano). Still, there are a few good English versions available, in particular the Anthony Burgess variant; however, for every Burgess, there are several that should be readily discarded.

That said, there is another, perhaps greater difficulty with Cyrano: it’s rare to see a man and a role match in a way that could be described as sublime, but just such an event occured when Gerard Depardieu donned the nose, cape and sword in the 1990 film version. Any other actor that wishes to take up the part has to do so in the shadow of that magnificent performance.

However, the play runs a risk of obsolescence if it remains trapped within the confines of a 19 year old French movie. The Chichester Festival Theatre run, limited as it was to just over three weeks, presented an opportunity for the work’s revival, particularly as Joseph Fiennes was selected for the lead role.

Fiennes is best known as a film actor; he has portrayed Shakespeare in the film “Shakespeare in Love” and Sir Robert Dudley in “Elizabeth”. However, he has recently returned to his Royal Shakespeare Company and Old Vic roots, and has stated he is more comfortable on stage than on the silver screen. Despite his excellent credentials, I was somewhat concerned about Fiennes’ suitability for the part, particularly as I was uncertain he could summon the primal force that Depardieu so readily accessed. In short, to make a mark in my recollections, this edition was going to have to rise above everything else I had absorbed.

Early signs were promising: as the lights went down, I noticed that the production utilised the limited space of Chichester Festival Theatre in a way that was refreshing and clever. The world of Cyrano and the audience were jutxaposed, with characters milling about the theatre as if 2009 and 1640 lay side by side without touching each other. This had the effect of making the audience more than mere spectators. We were locked in the play’s action, part of the scenery.

The play begins, appropriately enough, in the audience pit of a theatre. While the other characters were compelling, from the very first mention of Cyrano, we are anxiously awaiting his arrival. In the 1990 film, Cyrano stormed in with a violent outburst. In this play, his entrance was more of a contemptuous saunter. Fiennes rightly decided to be his own Cyrano, and while there was a few moments of adjustment on my part to the new parameters of the character, his portrayal was no less heartfelt or accurate. Depardieu’s Cyrano is the warrior, whose tough exterior belies the poet. Fiennes’ is the poetic Cyrano, who has a surprising capacity with the blade; Fiennes’ facility with the sword, even two swords at once, is impressive.

Beyond swordplay, however, “Cyrano de Bergerac”, above all things, is about blindness. Cyrano is blind to how easily love could come to him. The object of his affections, Roxanne, cannot see where love truly lies. I have read a preface to one version of “Cyrano de Bergerac” which stated Roxanne is a “silly little fool”; yet, without a Roxanne that a man of refinement and wit like Cyrano could potentially love, the drama loses much of its potency. Alice Eve in the Chichester production is perhaps the definitive Roxanne. She loves words and philosophy, but at the same time is more moved by the handsome face of Cyrano’s rival Christian than by Cyrano’s bravery and intellect. She is petulant, yet pretty, pretentious, yet sincere. In contrast, Christian, as played by Stephen Hagan, is a convincing dullard: the addition of a West Country rural accent to his character was a clever choice.

However, the play hinges on how much pain Cyrano can summon out of his predicament: here Fiennes rises to the challenge. His tears of loneliness are convincing, as is his lofty rhetoric when he allows his heart to soar. Perhaps the most successful scene is the play’s most bittersweet: Roxanne meets with Christian, and due to his stupidity, it is an encounter that turns sour. Cyrano, donning Christian’s cape and hat, then speaks to Roxanne from the darkness below her balcony, assuming the young man’s identity. He then pours out the contents of his heart to her, using words to say more than words could say; at this critical juncture, we need to feel Cyrano’s frustration at his inability to bend language to love’s purposes in the way he would like. Yet the emotion and the words are effective, and they move Roxanne to proclaim her love…for Christian. Cyrano’s suffering at having “laid the banquet”, yet remaining unable to enjoy the feast as Christian then does, is expertly done too; I must admit that hot tears welled up in my eyes.

The second act is also a great challenge. It takes place at the siege of Arras, in which Cyrano and his band of Gascony cadets are facing a vastly superior Spanish force. To make this scene work, we must have a sense of desperation, hunger and misery. This was done, in spite of the stage’s limitations; the costumes, make up, and even the spare lighting were perfect. The only way it could have been more convincing is if they had scattered dirt on the ground. However, this scene does expose one weakness of the production: there is a lengthy battle scene, during which there is a great deal of musket fire. While the noise is realistic, it is excessive, and not necessarily conducive to the play’s purposes apart from masking a large scene change in the background.

The final tableaux takes place many years later, and again it is an opportunity for Cyrano to shine. He is literally dying, and yet has a final chance to tell Roxanne the chapter and verse of all his grand emotion as his life ebbs away. Fiennes makes us believe he is on his way out, he has lost everything, but it is only love that matters…apart from his panache. At that point, tears did flow, followed by a moment of utter quietude. It took the audience a second or two to realise there should be a storm of applause.

Afterwards, I headed home, haunted by the poetry and the sad thought that I had just seen something that too few people have seen. There is no indication that the production is moving on to another theatre or another town. What has been done may lie buried; perhaps this review merely preserves a memory. But I hope that there are enough comments out there, enough affection and enough demand that another revival of this quality could one day emerge.

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