Stage Door Review

Cyrano de Bergerac

Thursday, August 8, 2019

✭✭

by Edmond Rostand, translated & adapted by Kate Hennig, directed by Chris Abraham

Shaw Festival, Royal George Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

August 11-October 20, 2019

Cyrano: “Regarde-moi, mon cher, et dis quelle espérance 

Pourrait bien me laisser cette protubérance!”

The Shaw Festival has revived Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac for the first time since its universally acclaimed production that played in 1982 and 1983. To my mind that production directed by Derek Goldby and starring Heath Lamberts as Cyrano and Marti Maraden as Roxane has never been equalled. Nevertheless, the present production directed by Chris Abraham and starring Tom Rooney as Cyrano and Deborah Hay as Roxane is the best production I have seen since 1983, despite the Stratford Festival’s attempts at the play in 1994 and 2009 and that in itself in a major accomplishment.

Rostand’s late Romantic play from 1897, a comédie héroïque written in five acts and in rhyming couplets is a fictionalized account of the life of the historical poet and swordsman Savinien de Cyrano de Bergerac (1619-55). Cyrano’s most famous work is Les États et Empires de la Lune (1657), which Rostand alludes to in Act 4 of the play and which was one the earliest examples of science fiction. Cyrano did fight at the Siege of Arras in 1640, part of the Thirty Years War, and one of his companions was Baron Christian de Neuvillette, who later married Cyrano's cousin. Otherwise, Rostand’s tale of the romantic relationships of these characters is pure fabrication.

While the play has over 60 named parts, the action focusses on only three characters. Of these the most important is that of Cyrano. Tom Rooney is excellent at conveying the character’s verbal and physical bravado and his contradictory views of himself. Anyone who mentions his enormous nose puts himself in danger of Cyrano’s blade. Yet, Cyrano generates reams of his own rhinocentric insults. While outwardly he is proud of his proboscis, inwardly, as Rooney well demonstrates, Cyrano feels it makes him so ugly that it disqualifies him from ever obtaining the love of his cousin Roxane, whom he has loved since childhood. Rooney makes Cyrano’s discovery that Roxane loves someone else, namely Christian, one of the most moving parts of the play as Cyrano tries to conceal his disappointment. The other occurs when Cyrano takes over from Christian in wooing Roxane by moonlight and shifts from speaking what he thinks Christian would say to expressing his own emotions. Rooney makes this transition beautifully and the increased ardour he lends Cyrano’s tone shows us the piquancy of Cyrano’s first chance to say aloud what he has previously had to keep silent.

What should be the most moving part of the play, as it was in 1982, is Roxane’s realization at the end that Cyrano has been expressing his love for her in Christian’s name. Strangely, Rooney does not alter the vigour of Cyrano’s speech in this final scene to show that Cyrano is older, feebler and injured. This prevents us from fully realizing how much Cyrano’s unrequited love has debilitated him. What Rooney’s characterization lacks in general is the clear linking of Cyrano’s outward and inward behaviour. With Heath Lamberts it was painfully clear that self-hatred fuelled by the mockery of others had caused Cyrano to create an outwardly combative persona to protect his inner feelings from scrutiny. Rooney shows both sides of Cyrano but not how the two are connected.

While a fine Cyrano is necessary to the play’s success so is an equally fine Roxane. This production is largely so successful because Deborah Hay gives such an extraordinarily sensitive performance in that role. More than Rooney as Cyrano, Hay masterfully shows us how Roxane changes in the course of the action. She develops from a sheltered naive girl into a woman willing to confront danger and finally to a mature woman who has gained insight through years of reflection. It is Hay who gives Roxane’s realization at the end of Cyrano’s love such strong emotional impact.

As the unknowing third member of the love triangle, Christian is too often played as simply a dimwitted fool simply because it provokes more laughter. The trouble with such an approach is that it makes Roxane seem foolish for loving Christian and Cyrano foolish for wishing to help him woo Roxane. Jeff Irving manages to avoid this pitfall by portraying Christian as a worthy, brave young military man. Like many military men in Shakespeare, e.g. Henry V, Christian’s background has not taught him how to speak to women. Unlike Henry V, however, Christian’s protestation is not a strategy but real. Playing Christian as a man who does not have Cyrano’s gift for words makes Christian’s realization that it is Cyrano loves Roxane all the more poignant.

Other actors provide many vivid portraits that surround these central three characters. Most important is the play’s principal antagonist the Count de Guiche. Usually, de Guiche is played simply as a villain. Patrick Galligan, however, plays the role with more subtlety. Galligan’s de Guiche is a nobleman accustomed to having his own way who becomes angry when thwarted. Thus, he is naturally upset when his plans to have Roxane marry his friend the Vicomte de Valvert are ruined when Cyrano helps Christian marry her. De Guiche tries to show he is superior to everyone else in the military camp during the Siege of Arras, but finally gives in to the hunger he is suffering just like the lower ranks. Not making de Guiche an outright villain, helps prepare for the character’s reconciliation with Cyrano in Act 5.

Other fine portraits include David Adams as the pompous actor Montfleury; Sharry Flett as Roxane’s diligent duenna; Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster as the proud, swashbuckling Valvert; Tanja Jacobs, unrecognizable in moustaches and beard, as Cyrano’s loyal friend Le Bret; and Kyle Blair as the lively, good-humoured baker Raguenaud.

The Shaw Festival does not use either of the two most famous translations of the play into English – that of Brian Hooker from 1923 or that of Anthony Burgess of 1971. Instead it has commissioned a new translation and adaptation from Kate Hennig, now best known for her Queenmaker trilogy of history plays – The Last Wife (2015), The Virgin Trial (2017) and Mother’s Daughter (2019). Instead of requiring a cast of 36 as did Stratford’s 2009 production, Hennig has pared down the dramatis personae so that the play can be acted with only 14 performers – seven men and seven women – with the use of much non-gender-specific doubling. Some actors play up to five different roles. 

Unlike Hooker or Burgess, Hennig’s version is not in verse and that lack is most keenly felt during the first three acts. Hennig’s Queenmaker trilogy portrays the stories of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and Mary I but has them speak in modern, highly colloquial English. So it is with the first half of Hennig’s Cyrano, where she too often makes sound like a modern teenager rather than a master of verbal invention. She has Cyrano reply “As if...”, hardly a witty riposte to a negative comment, and has Cyrano exclaim, “Oh my God!” several times in succession to express urgency. Unfortunately, this last phrase has become so overused by teenagers that it now does not even convey the strength of “Mon Dieu” in French.

Luckily, Hennig’s prose becomes increasingly poetic in Acts 4 and 5 so that even without meter we have a greater feel for the grandeur of Rostand’s poetry. If only Hennig could bring this to the first three acts, her adaption would become a fine action version of the play since the smaller cast makes it more performable and since her cutting of of the text focusses the story more clearly on Cyrano, Roxane and Christian. 

Chris Abraham’s insightful direction, Julie Fox’s sumptuous period costumes, Kimberly Purtell lighting that makes so many scenes look like 17th-century paintings combine with the fine acting of the whole company to make this Cyrano the one classic play at the Shaw Festival that no one should miss. 

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Tom Rooney as Cyrano and Patrick Galligan as de Guiche with the company; Deborah Hay as Roxane and Tom Rooney as Cyrano, © 2019 Emily Cooper; Courtney Ch’ng Lancaster as Valvert and Tom Rooney as Cyrano, © 2019 David Cooper.

For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.