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Never mind the nose: what makes Cyrano de Bergerac a hero for all time? | Theatre

Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is rarely far-off. In February Martin Crimp’s radical adaptation, starring James McAvoy, returns to London, then excursions to Glasgow and New York. Then follows the launch of Joe Wright’s new film, with Peter Dinklage in the lead. Though in each instances the actors eschew prosthetic adornments, you may say that the noses typically have it since Rostand’s “comédie héroïque” has been in common revival since its 1897 premiere. I’ve seen near a dozen productions over the previous half-century and it’s been the supply of a number of films, not less than three musicals and an opera. There was additionally in 2015 a gender-swapped model often called CyranA.

So why does it endure? At its premiere, it was seen as a revolt in opposition to the prevailing naturalist drama. As Graham Robb has identified, it additionally had a topical resonance, coming at the time of the Dreyfus affair (the scandal during which military captain Alfred Dreyfus was convicted of treason): “the soft-hearted slasher was all people’s hero – a man with alien options who suffered for his virtues however represented the society Dreyfus was purported to have betrayed”. However there are different causes for its continued reputation: it has a wonderful theatricality, glittering poetry and boasts a large star half that has attracted actors as varied as Ralph Richardson, Derek Jacobi and Antony Sher on stage and José Ferrer, Steve Martin and Gérard Depardieu on display screen.

Daryl Hannah and Steve Martin in Roxanne, 1987, based on Cyrano de Bergerac.
Daryl Hannah and Steve Martin in Roxanne, 1987, based mostly on Cyrano de Bergerac. {Photograph}: Columbia/Allstar

However I think there are deeper causes for its survival. Since Cyrano lends his poetic genius to a dim-witted rival permitting him to woo the girl Cyrano himself loves, it’s certainly one of the nice dramas of heroic self-sacrifice. It’s a theme that by no means loses its reputation: modern with Cyrano was Sir John Martin-Harvey’s The Solely Manner, based mostly on Dickens’s A Story of Two Cities. Henry James identified in 1901, discussing Rostand in The Scenic Artwork, that the novel “lives its hour primarily beneath favour of the romantic prejudice”. However whereas being shamelessly romantic, Rostand’s play can also be a examine of a fiercely unbiased spirit. Rostand’s Cyrano hates hypocrisy, defies authority and when he says – in Anthony Burgess’s translation – “You’ve no concept how bracing it’s to go marching upright in opposition to a volley of venom”, I’m reminded of Alceste in Molière’s The Misanthrope in his self-lacerating honesty.

Point out of Burgess raises the everlasting query of learn how to render Rostand’s poetry. Seeing the play in French in 1898, Max Beerbohm wrote that “to translate it into English had been a horrible imposition to set anyone” and even Henry James, who admired Rostand, wrote of “his cruel virtuosity of expression”. I’ve come throughout variations by Brian Hooker, Patrick Garland and Christopher Fry however Burgess’s, with its eclectic mixture of rhyme, rhetoric and quasi-Joycean puns, finds a strategy to match Rostand’s virtuosity whereas Crimp clearly demonstrates that the play can also be about the harmful lure of language.

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Pete Postlethwaite (Ragueneau), Alice Krige (Roxane), Derek Jacobi (Cyrano) and John Bowe (Le Bret) in the RSC’s 1983 production of Cyrano de Bergerac, directed by Terry Hands.
Pete Postlethwaite (Ragueneau), Alice Krige (Roxane), Derek Jacobi (Cyrano) and John Bowe (Le Bret) in the RSC’s 1983 manufacturing of Cyrano de Bergerac directed by Terry Arms. {Photograph}: Donald Cooper/Alamy

In the introduction to his translation, Burgess makes the pragmatic level that a play’s first responsibility is “to feed the actors” and I’m struck by how varied are the Cyranos I’ve seen. Edward Woodward, who performed it for the Nationwide in 1970, supplied us a moody introvert however one a little missing in panache. In contrast Robert Lindsay, who donned the nostril in a West Finish manufacturing in 1992, was all vigorous swash and buckle, placing one in mind of the display screen heroics of Douglas Fairbanks.

However, alongside McAvoy who provides a fierce, proud, free-thinking Cyrano in black leather-based, the two performances I bear in mind greatest come from totally different RSC productions. Derek Jacobi performed the function, with Sinéad Cusack as Roxane and Pete Postlethwaite as a versifying pastry prepare dinner, in Terry Arms’s 1983 manufacturing and it stays certainly one of his most interesting hours. Jacobi had the proper swagger and impetuosity however there was additionally a sweet-souled unhappiness to his efficiency. Requested if he had ever learn Don Quixote, Jacobi replied “Learn it? I’ve virtually lived it” and there was one thing about his falling inflection that advised a entire world of non secular desolation.

James McAvoy as Cyrano de Bergerac.
Radical … James McAvoy as Cyrano de Bergerac. {Photograph}: Marc Brenner

Antony Sher was Cyrano in Gregory Doran’s 1997 manufacturing and introduced one thing solely totally different to the half. Sher specialised in taking part in solitary outsiders and his Cyrano was a small, faintly bookish man who was conscious of his personal absurdity and who even donned specs to pen a love-letter to Roxane: a tiny contact echoed by Mark Rylance in Jerusalem when he too placed on glasses as if to belie his character’s alleged wildness.

Oscar Wilde stated there are as many Hamlets as there are actors and far the identical is true of Cyrano. However Jamie Lloyd, director of the present revival, hit a nerve when he stated “the purpose the play has endured is that we all have an insecurity, one thing we’re battling with”. Completely different actors could put roughly stress on Cyrano’s swordsmanship and showmanship however beneath that is a play about self-sacrifice and solitude, which is, maybe, the actual purpose it has lasted for nicely over a century and in many various cultures.

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