Cyrano de Bergerac opens to a stark stage, with plain walls and harsh neon lighting. We are, it would seem, beyond any normal sense of time, but, as the play begins, we learn that this is actually 1640s Paris.
James McAvoy takes to the stage as the titular Cyrano, man of many talents: wordsmith, master of rhyming couplets and fierce in combat, but who is in irrevocable and unrequited love with Roxane. It is his large nose which, in a cruel and vain society, holds him back and underpins the complexity and insecurity of his character.
Writer Martin Crimp’s adaptation of the play is exhilarating; words are reimagined with linguistic ingenuity, modern and acerbic, filled with jibes and expletives, permeated with South London and Scottish accents. The play’s original rhyming couplets become something quite new, as if we are watching a 21st century spoken-word-poetry-meets-grime-battle, filled with inventive, intelligent humour.
Language is valued over narrative, and with a largely static set, much is left to the imagination; one might be forgiven for viewing the play as one long act. But the quick wit is enough of a driving force. This is a play about crafting words, metatheatrical in its focus on performance, on theatre, on poetry versus prose. It’s telling that the characters’ carefully choreographed conversations are directed not to each other, but towards the audience.
Is the audience really just here for James McAvoy, though? If so, they won’t be disappointed. He’s a master as Cyrano, intoxicating to watch; he has energy and charisma, rawness and aggression, intermingled with mesmerising moments of vulnerability.
Yet nor will you be disappointed if you come for the play itself. It is at once astringent and moving, and in addition to McAvoy, other cast members give striking performances: Anita Joy Uwajeh is dazzling as an intelligent and feisty Roxane; Nima Taleghani and Michele Austin (as Ligniere and Leila, respectively) deliver their lines with such effortless poetry they made me want to speak in rhyming couplets every day. This is a production of Cyrano de Bergerac that’s right on the nose.