France, 1640, and Cyrano de Bergerac, a romantic poet and deadly swordsman, brave, eloquent and a cherisher of honour and ideals, puts aside his burning desire to woo his cousin, Roxane, in his selfless quest to further the pursuit of her by his young friend Christian. Why? He's cursed with a banana of a nose, "the most prominent proboscis this side of Damascus" that shrivels his self-confidence in love and leaves him courting by proxy.
This is a huge production comprising a cast of 20, a crew of 32 and a band of 16. The organisational skill in just getting the thing to the first night must have been immense. At the interval of the first night of Cyrano, writer/producer Sam Norman told me he'd been cogitating on producing a version of Edmond Rostand's 1890 play for more than 10 years. He and Aaron King, the composer and musical director, have been working on it on and off for the past year. This betokens impressive dedication by any standards, particularly when Messrs Norman and King, rather than taking the easier option of raiding one of the existing translations, chose to start from scratch, and while they were at it to turn the whole thing into a musical.
We have here tragi-comedy, perhaps the hardest theatrical genre to pull off, especially given that it's a heady mix of adventure – a duel and some physical byplay enliven proceedings – swooning romance and morality play. A major feature of this story is its solid, even fascinating themes. Cyrano's unswerving promotion of integrity, bravery, unselfish love and artistic eloquence is a tonic in our cynical times, and the audience all around me was urging our hero on in his derring-do. We learn of the danger in deception: the play seems to have a moral code even stricter than Cyrano’s own. In its later stages it examines the repercussions of Cyrano’s duplicity in impersonating Christian and the latter's complicity in this, by showing us the tragic existence that Cyrano must endure by living in close proximity to Roxane, his true love. Then there's the distinction drawn between internal and external beauty. Cyrano, representative of the former quality, passively struggles to gain Roxane’s love against the handsome Christian, representative of the latter. Roxane becomes the arbiter of the relative values of her suitors and (in consequence) of the abstract values of internal and external beauty.
Rosie Richards' stage direction created a fine air of what I might call relaxed energy. The scenes flowed easily on from one another, the pace was kept brisk but never rushed, and the blocking and scope for movement, with the stage often filled with bodies, were really skilful. The plane of the action was switched from the horizontal to the vertical by use of a high balcony whence Roxane looked down upon the romantic shadow boxing below. The action was punctuated by an overture and 15 of Aaron King's songs played by the excellent band whose string section of five (two fiddles, viola, cello and bass) was especially prominent. The musical element was perfectly judged: it created an atmosphere of, by turns, controlled chaos, sweet lament and downright pathos. Among so many tuneful musical numbers I especially enjoyed Cyrano's solo lament What Would She See in Me? followed later by the lyrical No Thank You and then after the interval the fine ensemble ballad Gascony.
Set designer Becky Lenihan and her assistants gave us an ivy-clad stone wall topped by the balcony, a temporary proscenium arch standing in scene 1 for a theatre, and a floor scattered with a few wine barrels, the whole backed by a pastel-painted woodland scene; all most cleverly done. Costumes were elaborate, with soldiers (and a parcel of nuns) in simple but effective black and white, the Compte de Guiche in shiny turquoise and the main characters in period costume topped by an inventive assortment of hats.
All this praise bestowed, the one element of the play's structure with which I might quibble was that the interval seemed to arrive rather late so that Act II felt just a touch muted in comparison with Act I's verve, with Cyrano seemingly taking even longer to depart the scene than, famously, does Hamlet. I also had a couple of minor cavils: the music for the overture and to a lesser extent the opening song (The Theatre) was slightly overbearing - an imbalance very soon corrected. I did also wince at the anachronistic: "Excuse me, Roxane, could we have a quick word?" But these are mere details, and a remarkable feature of the show was the virtual absence of first night gremlins.
Of the players on stage, the smaller roles were all thoughtfully executed, with the gross actor Montfleury (Alex Tometzki) and Lise Ragueneau (Lucy Talbot) especially seizing their moment in the sun. David Garrick as the pastry-cook Ragueneau was a bundle of vim (how could he not be with such a name?) with a huge grin and string puppet-like movements. Liam Sargeant's Christian was a fine physical presence with a good singing voice, and I thought he grew in confidence and presence as the play went on. Alex Buchanan was a nicely smarmy and outraged Compte de Guiche. As Roxane, Greta Thompson sang well but in her dialogue was slightly underpowered in volume (possibly a mike issue). Hers is a tricky role since she's a reactive rather than a pro-active figure, in a sense a sounding-board for the two men.
As for Cyrano, his arrival was held back at the start, an expectation-building touch. And when he did appear, James Bruce's impact was tremendous. This is a natural actor who breathed moral dignity, the spark of action and heartbreak. Mr Bruce did not so much dominate the stage as glide around it with fluid movement. His voice was ringing when needed and the next minute croaked with emotion. He somehow managed to sing in his powerful baritone while duelling, then the next second to bemoan his fate with pathetic fortititude. Nor, though a constant dynamic presence, did he ever once upstage his fellow-actors. Just terrific!
This Cyrano is the antidote to stay-at-home TV and evenings spent contemplating dusty library shelves. The O'Reilly Theatre was rocking on Wednesday night with fun and overflowing admiration for long-meditated ambition brought to fruition. Don't miss it!