How does a modern writer revive a hundred year old play? Sam Norman and Aaron King have taken on this challenge by adapting Edmond Rostand’s 19th century verse tragedy Cyrano de Bergerac into a musical. The setting, characters and storyline have been kept largely intact, and at first glance the result appears as a mishmash of all possible clichés in French romance. Swordfights, a classic love triangle, a balcony scene, lovers parted by war, protagonists dying in their beloved’s arms – we have all heard these stories before. Even the characters seem aware of the fact, as after another dramatic but fully anticipated scene one of them cleverly remarks: Isn’t that what they say / in a book or a play / when the lover goes off to war? / It’s so predictable, / so very tedious. Norman and King’s production, however, is by no means tedious.
Revolving around its eponymous hero, the lovelorn swordsman-poet Cyrano (James Bruce), the main action is fairly straightforward. Cyrano loves Roxane (Greta Thompson), but is incapable of declaring this outright. Roxanne herself is besotted with the handsome Christian (Liam Sargeant), who returns her love but lacks the eloquence to woo her, until Cyrano offers to write his love letters. Until the very end of the play, Cyrano hides his feelings behind another man, keeping up a façade that is clearly doomed to fall.
The writing greatly emphasises Cyrano’s torn-up identity. As Roxane stands on a balcony, he declares love to her in another’s name, yet the feelings he expresses are his own: And I know this is all irrelevant, and I’m a tiny atom in a great uncaring universe, and I know that I love you. His cynical appearance is matched by Christian’s naivety, an alliance forced by their individual impotence, summarised in one sentence: Together we’ll be the perfect man. As an audience, we understand from the start their endeavour is hopeless.
Comic elements balance the drama, and although they are mostly Rostand’s inventions, they are employed with great success. The effeminate actor Montfleury, Cyrano’s monstrous nose, Christian’s sheepish looks, a witty monk and cheeky sisters all drew a hearty laugh from the audience. Particularly comical is the baker-poet Ragueneau, who composes odes on pastries and cinnamon buns (O Muse, one thing we can agree upon / Is that the greatest food is cinnamon) and is then chased around the table by his scolding wife. However, the sheer quantity of minor characters sometimes feels overly chaotic, particularly in the opening scene which has twelve people on stage.
The cast contains an astonishing quantity of great voices, which are accompanied by beautifully fitting music. Sargeant’s dreamy Disney prince-like voice stands out, as does Bruce’s. Special mention should go to Alex Buchanan as the Comte de Guiche, who performs a classic ‘villain song’ and seems to take real pleasure in his malice.
If you desire surprising and innovative plots, Cyrano probably will not appeal to you. But Norman and King have certainly put new life into an age-old story, and if you wish to see an ingenious execution of classical romance, this show is definitely worth a visit.