Anybody who nose anything about Cyrano de Bergerac nose that the legendary bon viveur, poet and swordsman had a particularly protuberant proboscis. But woe betide anybody who happens to refer to this aspect of Cyrano’s physiognomy, because he’s especially sensitive on the subject.
There’s a great scene when a visiting Norman baron continually interrupts one of Cyrano’s lengthy dictums by forcing the word nose, or derivatives thereof, into the speech. Traditionally, Cyrano would slice this man in half with his rapier without a second thought, but this Norman baron so happens to be the apple of the eye of Cyrano’s beautiful cousin Roxane, and so he has to keep that blade sheathed.
Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is a play purely about love, both proclaimed and unrequited. It is presented here by Theatr Clwyd as a farce, as well as a comedy, as well as a tragedy. It has its tongue firmly in its cheek, and Phillip Breen’s production leans heavily on the humour, but this wayward lack of stylistic focus sometimes works against it. When it’s funny, it does its job well, and the cast are obviously having a whale of a time. But when the play calls upon the audience to take these characters seriously, that earlier lack of sincerity can make it harder to engender genuine empathy. These people are amusing buffoons and histrionic cyphers, although despite this, there were still a few teary eyes in the house when the lights went up.
Standing self-assuredly at the centre of the production is Steffan Rhodri in the title role. He has a voice like honey, and is perfectly cast as a man whose eloquence, whose mastery of language, is his greatest talent. There are some achingly fervent and beautifully written poetic passages in Anthony Burgess’s adaptation, and Rhodri delivers them with unashamed confidence and heartfelt authenticity. This is a significant performance in Rhodri’s already significant stage career: he injects passion into his poetry, and turns a humorous phrase with ease. He is, by far, the greatest thing about this production.
It is principally an ensemble cast made up of a good many Theatr Clwyd faithfuls who double (and sometimes triple) as various characters. Daniel Llewelyn-Williams proves his flair with a rapier in two military roles, while there are also enjoyable turns from Simon Holland Roberts, Dafydd Llyr Thomas and Sion Pritchard. Wayne Cater makes his mark with the brief part of “tragic actor” Montfleury, a gift of a role which he milks with aplomb, while Aled Pugh gives an amusing (though stereotypical) performance as an effete Marquis.
Other leading players include Steven Elliott as the stony-faced Le Comte de Guiche, a lovely performance which puts one in mind of David Warner; Sara Lloyd-Gregory as the purposeful Roxane, the cousin of Cyrano for whom he has a desperately unrequited love; and Marc Rhys as the “comely but dumb” Baron Christian de Neuvillette. Rhys is a handsome chap, and won’t be fresh to comparisons with a certain Game of Thrones heartthrob, but he gives the part youthful energy and enthusiasm.
The plot, which revolves around Cyrano’s undeclared passion for his cousin, and in turn his cousin’s burgeoning passion for the dashing Christian, would have made a great Carry On film. Christian is useless with words, which is unfortunate as Roxane is wooed best by the magical art of poetry and soft words. So he asks the lexicographically gifted Cyrano to write heartfelt missives to his sweetheart to prompt their betrothal. This ploy works, but as the play rolls out, much to both Cyrano’s and Christian’s regret.
This play is a triumph of prose and poetry, structured as it is in rhyming couplets and partially Alexandrine verse. Rostand was an adept writer, and Burgess has managed to translate that genius well. There’s a proliferation of Welsh phrases scattered throughout the piece (as well as new work from Twm Morys), which butts heads with the 17th century Parisian setting. Some might say that the swapping of French for Welsh is an obvious choice, as lyrical and poetic as the Celtic language is. Others might say it is eye-rollingly predictable to Welshify the text. However, it’s undeniable that the experiment works well.
If there’s one thing that needs work, it’s the length. This production rolls in at a buttock-numbing three hours (plus interval). Some might balk when told that the first half alone clocks in at an hour and forty minutes. The play is verbose by reputation and necessity, but there’s plenty of gristle that could be shaved off the adaptation to make it friendlier. Just as some of Cyrano’s soliloquies are circumlocutory, so Rostand’s writing was sometimes a little prolix, and Burgess may have done well to snip a bit off here and there.
If you’re looking for an action-packed swashbuckler, look elsewhere because there’s only a tipping of the plumed hat to sword-fighting and combat here. But if you want a purely written and authentically told love story, laced with good humour and clever badinage, this is the play for you. And above all, there’s Steffan Rhodri’s towering central performance, which he presents with such confidence and, yes, panache.
Cyrano de Bergerac is at Theatr Clwyd, Mold, until May 7th, 2016.