DramaNorth East & YorkshireReview

Cyrano – West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds

Writer​: Edmond Rostand
Adapter​: Deborah McAndrew
Director and Composer​: Conrad Nelson
Reviewer​: Ron Simpson

In an interview on the Northern Broadsides website Deborah McAndrew makes the point that, though Cyrano de Bergerac, to give it its original full title, is set in 1640, it is very much a product of the late 19th Century. That could hardly be truer. In the 17th Century, Cardinal Richelieu who is name-checked in Cyrano was determined to promote classical tragedy. In the days of Corneille, Racine and Moliere, comedy was comedy and tragedy was bound by the Unities of time, place and action.

But what is Cyrano? The programme uses the term “romantic comedy” – true up to a point, but you might want to add “fantasy” and anyone coming in after the interval might think himself watching a poetic tragedy or a heroic melodrama. And the Unities of time and place disappear down a 14-year gap between Acts 4 and 5 and a scene at the siege of Arras (as distinct from the Paris of the first three acts).

So the problem for McAndrew and Conrad Nelson is one of tone and of imposing order on a play that is too flamboyant (and too wordy) for its own good. Rostand’s original lives on because of one brilliant idea and one spectacularly realised character rather than consistent dramatic quality.

Cyrano is a soldier in the Cadets, a regiment of Guards, a man of almost impossible valour and skill in weaponry, a brilliant poet and satirist. Sadly this paragon also has a bad tendency to offend anyone in power – and, also, a nose of such heroic proportions that he believes himself incapable of being loved by any woman. As he is passionately and selflessly devoted to his beautiful cousin, Roxane, this is a problem.

And here comes the brilliant idea. Christian, very handsome, thoroughly decent and totally tongue-tied, joins the Cadets. He and Roxane fall in love with each other’s exteriors, but Christian is incapable of wooing her and Cyrano provides the words and passion in a strange, but oddly noble, triangle, winning Roxane on Christian’s behalf. In the end, who does she love, handsome face or great soul?

For much of the first three acts, the production is a glorious kaleidoscope of colour, comedy and music. Seven of the cast of 13 play multiple parts, mostly anonymous, so those three chaps camping their way through the Poets scene will soon come roistering belligerently on as Cadets. The music is outstanding, not only Nelson’s compositions, but the instrumental expertise of the cast.

Deborah McAndrew’s clever and sparky version keeps much of the poetry alongside contemporary naturalism. The heroic rodomontade of war is harder to find, but McAndrew and Nelson seize every opportunity for comedy in battle and the folk song-like Song of the Seasons engages our emotions at the siege of Arras. Finally, aided by fine work from Christian Edwards (Cyrano) and Sharon Singh (Roxane), the ending is every bit as moving as it should be.

Edwards is more of a provincial and a ruffian (a very noble ruffian) than many Cyranos, more convincingly real, far more than a plume on a hat. Singh, as the unapproachable beauty, convinces without establishing individuality; as things fall apart, her performance comes into its own. Michael Hugo’s disreputable poet, Ligniere, singing rude songs or linking the action, stands out among a host of wittily drawn and very human cameos.

In this first end-on venue of Northern Broadsides’ tour Lis Evans’s designs feature elegant flats with astronomical diagrams. Daniella Beattie’s lighting is full of striking effects and Beverley Norris-Edmunds knows how to choreograph with your tongue in your cheek.

Runs until 4 March 2017, then tour continues | Image: Contributed

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Mark Clegg. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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