In the associate director’s note in the program (written by Kip Williams), we hear about how this script of Cyrano de Bergerac – adapted by Andrew Upton – was first aired in 1999 and then has lain dormant until now. It talks of how the production was set in the Wharf 1 theatre and was such a smaller affair, but also details how they expanded it into the larger cast and the larger Sydney Theatre. For the most part, I think, they succeeded, but, reading this note after seeing the production, I was struck by a thought: “ah, that’s why it felt a bit off”.
The opening act is a muddle of every character at once, set in a theatre with its audience and its actors. For anyone unfamiliar with the play (thankfully I avoided it in that cauldron of literary ruination – high school English) the barrage of French names can be slightly confusing at first, although one soon gets used to it. The important part is that Christian (Chris Ryan) arrives at the theatre and sees from afar (and with much love and sighing) the beauty that is Roxanne (Eryn Jean Norvill). But he can’t have her, as she’s in a marriage of convenience with De Guiche (Josh McConville), let alone the pinings for her from Cyrano himself (Richard Roxburgh), who is convinced he is too ugly, especially with his enormous nose, to ever stand a chance with her. Events come about so that Cyrano, who is a wordsmith of the highest order, will supply said words to Christian (who wouldn’t know a dictionary if it spelled its name for him) so that with his handsome face, and Cyrano’s handsome words, they might woo her.
Comedy and tragedy ensues.
The set, by Alice Babidge, is not the best, I think. It involves a large piece in the centre for the first three acts – a mini proscenium arch for the theatre in the first, a pastry shop in the second, and a balcony in the third, although after the interval it opens up into a battlefield and cloistered yard of a nunnery. (The nunnery is superbly done, however, with a scenic surprise that suits the moment to a tee.) Around these pieces is a second level walkway on the three walls, which characters are often on (although the main action usually takes places centre stage). The walls are stark and black, and the walkways have no decoration. And so it feels slightly jarring, having this beautifully rendered proscenium arch (complete with working curtain) in the middle of the stage, and then these bare bones walkways around it. Yes, it gives height to the set – which it probably needed – and yes, it gives the actors someplace else to go, but I wasn’t the biggest fan of it.
Thankfully the rest of the production lives up to better standards. (Which is not to say that the set is terrible, mind you.) The costuming, for instance (also by Babidge) is spectacular in its recreation of French foppery and elegance. The acting, too, is up there, especially from Roxburgh. In a character that feels like a more resigned (and yet more take-it-to-the-world) than that which he played in Uncle Vanya a few years ago, he makes a Bergerac that is sarcasm above all, with his own sincerity sneaking up on him. Ryan as Christian doesn’t make quite as much of an impact – doesn’t quite steal enough sympathy for his character while Cyrano is on stage – but he does a fine job. Julia Zemiro (isn’t she off the telly – I didn’t expect her on stage!) provides quite a few of the laughs as both a nurse and later on a nun, and Norvill shapes a strong and determined woman blown about by love’s winds.
This is a AAA theatre experience – a star, a classic, a huge theatre – and, for the most part, it succeeds admirably.