There’s only a few weeks left of 2019, but still a bundle of big shows to squeeze in. Next up is Cyrano de Bergerac at London’s Playhouse Theatre – a brand-new version of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 verse-play, written by Martin Crimp and directed by Jamie Lloyd – the opening salvo in a new West End season from the director that will later feature Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House.
Cyrano de Bergerac – in the original French version – tells the story of a strong-willed soldier with a vocabulary as voluminous as his oversized nose, and the complicated love-triangle he finds himself in with the smart, sexy Roxane and her beloved Christian, a comrade of Cyrano. It has been widely staged and widely adapted, perhaps most memorably in 1983, when an acclaimed Royal Shakespeare Company production was taped and televised.
Lloyd’s version, which runs until late February, stars James McAvoy as Cyrano. The two are regular collaborators – McAvoy starred in Lloyd’s productions of Three Days Of Rain in 2009, of Macbeth in 2013, and of The Ruling Class in 2015. He is joined on stage here by Anita-Joy Uwajeh as Roxane, Eben Figueiredo as Christian and a diverse ensemble.
But does Lloyd’s latest West End season start with a success? Is Crimp’s contemporary Cyrano a hit with the critics? Does McAvoy manage to capture the charisma of Rostand’s panache-full protagonist?
Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
There are few playwrights of Martin Crimp’s stature working in the UK today. Over a 40-year career, he’s given us Dealing With Clair, The Treatment, Attempts On Her Life and many more, as well as scores of adaptations. His last effort – January’s When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other – was something of a flop, but this free-flowing Cyrano is decidedly the opposite.
“Director Jamie Lloyd and adapter Martin Crimp have updated and mutated Edmond Rostand’s 1897 verse drama about a soldier-poet with an enormous nose into a stripped-back, street-style rap battle,” describes Nick Curtis (Evening Standard, ★★★★★). “Complex ideas about love, literature, body image and truth are expressed in its dizzyingly clever rhymes, but essentially it remains a captivating, tragicomic romance.”
“Lloyd and Crimp have conjured up something pretty remarkable, the cut and thrust world of seventeenth-century France reinvented as a series of rap battle royals, or grand poetry slams,” echoes Andrzej Lukowksi (Time Out, ★★★★). “It doesn’t have the euphoric effortlessness and virtuoso authenticity of Hamilton, but it’s not a million miles off”.
Everyone agrees. For Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★★) it is “a breathtakingly bold rethinking of a classic in resonant contemporary ways”, for Clive Davis (Times, ★★★★★) it is “grandiloquent and swaggering”, “witty”, “tender”, and for Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) it “works beautifully”.
“It might sound like the last word in gimmickry,” writes Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★★). “But the conceit brilliantly renews and makes relevant the original’s risk-taking linguistic exuberance.” This, he concludes is Crimp’s “finest adaptation since his modernised Misanthrope”, and Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★★★★) goes a bit further, claiming that this is “a last-minute contender for production of the year”.
Jamie Lloyd has barely stopped recently. He directed Evita at the Regents Park Open Air Theatre, he oversaw all seven instalments of the Pinter At The Pinter season, he took charge of Betrayal with Tom Hiddlestone – in London and on Broadway. And that’s just 2019. Does he sign off with yet more success?
You bet. His direction “reveals breathtaking confidence and style” according to Crompton, “cuts to the core of a classic” according to Cavendish, and “feels thrillingly reflective of contemporary London, yet also true to the Parisian original” according to Curtis. For Aleks Sierz (The Arts Desk, ★★★★★), it’s “a triumph from start to finish”.
“Cyrano’s defining characteristic is panache, and oh boy, this production has it by the bucketload,” continues Curtis, while Lukowski lauds him for a show with “an austere, angular, edgy aesthetic” that “almost totally reclaims, reinvents and reinvigorates” the play.
“The cast wears contemporary clothes, and Soutra Gilmour’s set consists of an aggressively bare, blonde wood cube,” describes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★). “The only props, bar a few plastic chairs, are microphones.” It’s “stripped-down and shaken-up”, she says, with “a sense of humour” and “a genuine sense of poignancy”.
One scene in particular, when McAvoy’s Cyrano swaps his Glaswegian accent for a South London one to seduce Roxane in the guise of Christian, is highlighted by the critics. It’s “hilarious” at first, then “beautifully, horribly, air-suckingly intense”, says Lukowski. “And erotic,” adds Allfree. “This is the most sexually charged production of Cyrano I’ve seen.”
“This is a Cyrano that dispenses with conventional spectacle, colourful costumes and visual flummery,” concludes Billington. “But Lloyd’s production makes you see an old play with fresh eyes.”
James McAvoy is familiar to millions for his screen work – as Professor X in the X-Men franchise, as Robbie Turner in Atonement, and most recently as Lord Asriel in the BBC/HBO adaptation of His Dark Materials. But he’s never neglected the stage, and Lloyd has described their collaboration as “the most significant working relationship of my career”.
He is, by all accounts, excellent as Cyrano. And his nose is notably normal. “McAvoy’s proboscis remains unaugmented by prosthetics,” writes Tripney. “No attempt has been made to sculpt him a colossal schnoz. Instead, it’s left to the imagination.”
His performance is “intensive and emotive”, Tripney continues, while Allfree labels it “spellbinding”, Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) commends his “vivid vehemence”, and Billington confesses himself “totally captivated” by McAvoy’s “swaggering Gascon”. Sierz calls it “a breathtaking career-best performance”.
“This is McAvoy’s fourth project with Lloyd, and it’s his best,” asserts Cavendish. “With sparkling eyes to match scintillating outpourings, he doesn’t waste a syllable: by turns pugnacious and tender, he wears a mask of insouciance yet bursts with feeling and gnawing pain.”
He is “simply superb, using all his starry magnetism, energy and ability to mine feeling to create a vivid picture of a complex, unhappy, passionate man,” chimes Crompton, while Curtis admires how he brings “aggressive swagger and charm to the character’s brawling and versifying exploits, and a bottomless anguish to his romantic plight”.
It really is. Jamie Lloyd has kicked off his brand new West End season with perhaps the production of the year, featuring perhaps the performance of the year from James McAvoy. Crimp’s free-flowing adaptation of the text is dizzying and dazzling, Lloyd’s direction cuts to the core of a classic play, and McAvoy is magnificent in the central role of Cyrano.
Five stars from the Evening Standard, The Times, The Telegraph, WhatsOnStage, The Arts Desk and Metro, plus fours everywhere else, make this one of the most well-reviewed shows of 2019.