Wednesday 22 January 2020

Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse, or, Another Failed Concept Production

Note: This is a review of the matinee on Saturday 18th January 2020.

My misgivings about this show started as I was queuing up to get in and noticed that all the publicity stills featured performers holding microphones. They grew as I took my seat and observed a bare box-like playing area with three microphones and stands. Sadly, the show itself proved those misgivings all too justified.

There seems to be a vogue at the moment in directorial circles for bare stagings that have little concrete sense of place - the current production of The Duchess of Malfi at the Almeida which I sat through earlier in the week is another one. Here Soutra Gilmour's set is wearisome to look at for nearly three hours - mostly just that bare box-like space, occasionally added to with a small set of stairs at the back, a mirror into which Cyrano stares for reasons never fully established, and four orange plastic chairs. Near the opening the production projects, and the text claims, that we are in France in 1640 - I never believed this.

Jamie Lloyd's directorial approach, assisted by Martin Crimp's adaptation, is similarly alienating. They commit one of my cardinal sins of starting off with a tiresome mockery of form. As so often before this slows down the action to the point that I wanted to scream at them to get on with it and it fatally undermines the believability of what follows. They add a further layer of artificiality by having their ensemble delivering most lines into the various microphones, much of it in an attempted rap-like style which fails to dazzle. It was my partner who pointed out to me in the interval how much this was obviously indebted to Hamilton. But there is a gulf in class. In the first place Lin-Manuel Miranda's marriage of rap with Broadway is effortless. But he also was brilliantly successful in making American revolutionary types feel modern while still of their own time. I suspect my partner was correct in thinking that Lloyd similarly wished to collapse the distance between France 1640 and the present day and reassure us that these people are really like us. But as far as I was concerned it doesn't work.

Part of the problem is that opening contempt of form - contrast with Hamilton which is affectionate in and enriched by its various acknowledgements of musical theatre heritage. Part of it is certainly the tiresomely abstract production. But the issues don't stop there. Hamilton created so convincing a world that I forgot about any microphones performers were holding (indeed I can't actually now recall whether any of them do perform thus), this show just feels persistently artificial. Characters are almost never allowed to address each other directly but mostly talk to the audience while speaking into their microphones - unsurprisingly little sense of meaningful emotional connection between them is created. Crimp's translation is full of typical and entirely not shocking swearing. At times Crimp inserts lectures for example about arts funding and capitalism which fail to sound like the characters speaking them. Towards the end Crimp/Lloyd suddenly have Christian apparently declare love for Cyrano - I'd be interested to know if that's in the original, either way there's been nothing to suggest this turn of events to that point, again it has the feel of an authorial point shoved in, and it rather undermines any feeling I might have had for Roxanne's grief since it suggests that Christian's love has been false all along. Indeed I had an increasing suspicion that the directorial/authorial team distrusted emotion.

I'd partly booked for this because James McAvoy was in it, having been impressed with his performances on other occasions - particularly in Lloyd's production of The Ruling Class. McAvoy as ever has great charisma, and manages to vary the levels of delivery despite the microphones. He's never not watchable, but even he cannot salvage the production. Eben Figueiredo (Christian) gives a subtle, understated performance and the best moments in the show come in some of his exchanges with McAvoy which almost, briefly, made me forget the concept in which they're marooned. Alongside them Anita Joy Uwajeh as Roxanne has less presence, although clearly not helped by a script that doesn't give her much to go on - I'd be interested to know how far that's the original and how far the Crimp effect (this was my first encounter with the play).

As this long afternoon crawled to a conclusion I just wanted it to end so I could escape. I rarely cared about any of the characters on stage or really believed in their alleged relationships. The production feels like a tired revisiting of approaches that others have utilised far more powerfully and successfully. Not even McAvoy can make this worth sitting through. To be avoided.

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