Playwright Martin Crimp, an adherent of the ”in-yer-face” school of British playwriting, has taken Edmond Rostand’s turn-of-the-last century verse drama, Cyrano de Bergerac, and not only blown off the cobwebs but exploded it into an entirely new 21st century experience. Staged by innovative director Jamie Lloyd, it has become a showcase for titanic Scottish stage and screen actor James McAvoy making an unforgettable New York stage debut in the title role as the 17th century poet and soldier.
Although a title card tells us that this is 1640, everything else screams today from the blue jeans, sweatshirts and Cyrano’s black leather jacket from designer Soutra Gilmour to the contemporary vernacular and occasional anachronisms (reference to Steve Martin’s film Roxane and a duel of words on microphones). McAvoy’s gigantic performance has the same impact that Marlon Brando must have had with his the motorcycle-riding renegade in The Wild One in the 1950’s. McAvoy may start a whole new school of acting, one so immersive that the actor cannot be found in the performance.
While the original play in French is in classic Alexandrines which are lines of 12 syllables, Crimp has recast the play in rhymed couplets spoken so fast by The Jamie Lloyd Company that it approaches rap, the poetry of today. Rostand’s original Cyrano has a prodigious-sized nose which has become his defining quality and he assumes that no woman will ever look at him with desire. Here Lloyd has the cast of characters discuss this huge organ but when McAvoy finally appears he wears no such proboscis and we must visually imagine what is not depicted. On one level this is more effective, making Cyrano a much more damaged man psychologically who may be affected by something that others aren’t bothered by.
The Paris of Crimp’s play is a place where poetry is the commerce of the day and all in the know are obsessed by an explosion of language. Cyrano, the head of the cadets, who thinks himself ugly, is in love with his cousin Roxane but, expecting rejection, doesn’t risk telling her. She, on the other hand, has fallen in love on sight with Christian de Neuvellette, an extremely handsome young man who has just arrived in Paris from the country to join Cyrano’s troop.
However, Christian is tongue-tied in front of women though he is equally smitten by Roxane. When Roxane asks Cyrano to look after Christian and not let him be bullied by the other cadets, she also asks him to get Christian to write her a letter. This is a problem for Christian as he is almost illiterate. But this is no problem for Cyrano who loves language and words and who offers to write his letter for him. Unfortunately, Cyrano has crossed the Count de Guiche who is also in love with Roxane. Cyrano undertakes to woo Roxane for Christian through his words, while De Guiche sets out to punish both Cyrano and Christian with disastrous consequences. Roxane is never meant to find out that the man she thinks she is in love with is not the man whose words are making her swoon.
The set by Soutra Gilmour is as minimalist as the production (not unlike her design for Lloyd’s 2019 revival of Pinter’s “Betrayal” on Broadway): a white box which in some scenes has a retractable white staircase before it. (Five orange chairs are used to great effect as is a three foot wall that at times divides the stage when the stairs are retracted.) For the theater scene in Act I and the war scene in Act IV, the back wall is turned black. With her costumes in black and blue the look is of a silent film but it also focuses the entire production on the language which is a cascade of words. Lose concentration for a moment and you lose a great deal. As the diverse cast uses a great many accents, it is difficult to always understand or catch what is being said in Ben and Max Ringham’s sound design, but Jamie Lloyd’s riveting production will have you hanging on every word – unless you arrived tired and can’t keep up. Jon Clark’s lighting creates different environments for each scene even though the stage doesn’t change that much.
However, it is James McAvoy’s performance which will go down in theater history. His physicality, virility, and fierceness suggest the young James Cagney of his early gangster films and the young Marlon Brando of his rebel roles. He paces the stage like a caged panther and long before the end of the play he owns it. He makes palpably clear what causes Cyrano to tick and he has the stamina of ten men. The character’s recklessness and brashness are embodied in his performance. His long wooing speech to Roxane when she thinks she is hearing Christian is one of the most erotic things ever uttered from a New York stage. His duel of words in the first act’s scene where he stops a performance by Montfleury, an actor he hates, is as ferocious as any fencing matching in any Errol Flynn movie. It is the sort of performance that if you don’t witness it yourself, you will be sorry for the rest of your theater-going life.
The rest of the cast is not quite up to McAvoy’s level but it might be too exhausting if they were. Evelyn Miller’s Roxane is feisty, independent, arrogant and articulate. Unlike some Roxanes who have used the 17th century to behave as passive women, pawns of their guardians, Miller is entirely her own woman, here given a good deal of poetry and language with which to work. As the handsome Christian, Eben Figueiredo is convincingly inarticulate as well as impassioned. He and McAvoy have a male bonding scene which is not in the original, but is implied by it, which will be controversial but updates the play just like the language and the costumes.
Tom Edden’s Count de Guiche is low-key and sinister, a villain and an aristocrat who will always feel entitled. Michele Austin is amusing as the poet and baker Madame Leila Ragueneau who is a teacher to the other poets and a friend to both Cyrano and Roxane. (In the original Ragueneau is a man but in this modern version the gender change works just as well.) As Cyrano’s best friend Adam Best’s Le Bret has a quiet dignity. Vaneeka Dadhria listed in the program as Beatboxer is responsible for many if not all of the sound efects in the production. The rest of the large cast of 18 is excellent in a variety of roles in different scenes.
If you come with the Edmond Rostand original in your mind from the many stage revivals and film version, you may have a bit of trouble adjusting initially to this new version. It is certainly not for purists who can’t imagine an old play updated to invest new life. Alternately, the diverse cast so much resembles today society that it is difficult to think of this as a 400-year-old story. It is really unnecessary for the production to be set in 1640-1655 as it is so convincingly set in the present. Jamie Lloyd who also directed the Roundabout Theatre Company’s traditional version of Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway in 2012 has taken a great many chances that have paid off. He has also given James McAvoy the role of a lifetime as well as a showcase to reveal his prodigious talent. You may not like what you have seen but you will know you are in the presence of greatness.
Cyrano de Bergerac (April 5 – May 22, 2022)
The Jamie Lloyd Company
Brooklyn Academy of Music
BAM Harvey Theater at the BAM Strong, 651 Fulton Street, in Brooklyn
For tickets, call BAM ticket services at 718-936-4100 or http://www.BAM.org
Running time: two hours and 55 minutes including one intermission