Cyranose: STC’s Cyrano de Bergerac

His is the nose that launched a thousand quips. A famous literary swashbuckler in the same league as Dumas’ musketeers, Cyrano de Bergerac was, incredibly, a real writer and philosopher in France in the early seventeenth century. Imbued with the famous proboscis and a life much embellished beyond reality, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is a romantic swashbuckler like no other. With an uncanny gift for words – his pen, they say, is as mighty as his sword – he is both heroic and hopeless in the face of love, and his story is one of love – lost, won, and unrequited, and is as humane as his nose is larger than life.
While Rostand’s play was written in 1897, the Sydney Theatre Company’s production uses Andrew Upton’s adaptation from 1999 in an updated version, and is set in Cyrano’s own mid-seventeenth century world with much flair and panache. It is the story of Cyrano, a man who is blessed with an unfortunately large nose, and who is in love with Roxane. Roxane is in love with Christian. Christian is in love with Roxane but cannot express it anywhere near as adequately as he’d like. Cyrano agrees to help him and, well, I’ll leave the rest up to you. But as lofty and as word-drunk as the play – as Cyrano – is, there is still a sparseness, an disconnection between the period flummery in the costumes and the occasionally spare mise-en-scène (designed by Alice Babidge with Renée Mulder), and Upton’s adaptation.

Staged within a black-box with multiple doorways and a gallery around the sides, Upton’s Cyrano is furnished with all the sumptuous splendour of the Ancien Régime – complete with ornate proscenium arch with rich red curtains and gold leaf. The costumes – a fantasia in leather boots, hats, jackets, breeches, belts, buckles and feathered hats – are as lofty as Cyrano’s words, and ground the production in a real, albeit heightened, period. Mediated by a flamboyance and panache that would not look out of place in The Musketeers, this Cyrano cracks along at a fine pace, full of wit, flair and pointed asides, not to mention hearts full of love, and swashbuckling.
While Upton’s cast are all strong – Eryn Jean Norvill’s Roxane and Chris Ryan’s Christian especially – even if they are all based in a kind of exaggerated Romanticisim, they are all overshadowed by Richard Roxburgh as Cyranose. Dressed in lank greasy long hair, a large hat, big boots and of course the nose (a different one every night, so we are told), he looks every inch Rostand’s poet-hero. However, if you’ve seen him in recent years – in Rake on television, or in the theatre – his Cyrano feels very much in the same vein as his Cleaver Greene; that is to say, he doesn’t appear to be acting, but rather playing Roxburgh playing Cyrano – there doesn’t seem to be any kind of characterisation to set him apart from his usual performative self. Don’t get me wrong, his performance is highly enjoyable, and he has the right amount of pathos and wonder for the well-endowed swashbuckler but, like the set and the production, there seems to be an emptiness behind it as well. Norvill’s Roxane is girly and mature, while Ryan’s Christian is goofy, inarticulate and love-struck in almost every beat, and he manages to land more than one good nose-pun(ch) on Cyrano. The wooing scene, under Roxane’s balcony, is beautiful and heartbreaking at the same time, a palpable sense of unrequited love and anguish, as Cyrano misses out on what he wants most by a nose’s length. Special mention must go also to Josh McConville’s deliciously borderline-pantomimish turn as De Guiche, dressed in silk and brocade finery beyond belief, who almost steals the light from Roxburgh’s Cyrano on a number of occasions.
There is a visual economy at play here which seems to nod towards Kip Williams’ involvement rather than Upton’s. There are flashes of theatrical ingenuity here, as in Williams’ other productions, such as in Act IV at the siege of Arras, where smoke covers the sleeping cadets, a stark monochrome image of despair and tiredness. The final scene (act?) set fourteen years later, between Cyrano and Roxane, is moving and hauntingly staged, but it feels swamped by the vastness of the Sydney Theatre’s cavernous space; not even Cyranose can fill it with his dignified exit and railing against the fading light. The performances go some way to filling the large space, but they too are eclipsed by Roxburgh’s turn.
While a sumptuous and rollicking swashbuckler in the romantic mode, this Cyrano’s visuals and mise-en-scène fail to match the lofty heights of its words; for all its romantic barnstorming and wordplay, it misses the mark by a nose.

Theatre playlist: 73. Cyrano, Jean-Claude Petit

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