Words are everything in Jamie Lloyd’s stripped-down and shaken-up Cyrano. Martin Crimp’s adaptation plays fast and loose with Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play about a monumentally-nosed soldier-poet, trading Alexandrine verse for the rhythmic delivery of slam poetry. In place of tabards, there are t-shirts; in place of rapiers, rhymes.
As Rostand’s hero, James McAvoy’s proboscis remains unaugmented by prosthetics: no attempt has been made to sculpt him a colossal schnoz. Instead, it’s left to the imagination. The cast wears contemporary clothes, and Soutra Gilmour’s set consists of an aggressively bare, blonde wood cube. The only props, bar a few plastic chairs, are microphones. Standing mics are dotted around the place, their cables snaking across the stage and occasionally deployed as skipping ropes, while microphone packs are clearly visible when the actors strip off their t-shirts. The microphones amplify every fricative and plosive, every assonant vowel and beatboxed breath (skilfully supplied by Vaneeka Dadhria).
McAvoy, speaking for the most part in his Scottish accent, curls his tongue around the couplets, revelling in their rhythmic intricacy. With his hair closely cropped and clad in a black leather jacket, he’s an outwardly confident Cyrano, volatile yet vulnerable, with a mile-wide destructive streak. His mouth is as much a weapon as his fists, his tongue his instrument. McAvoy’s performance is intense and emotive, even if he doesn’t totally convince as someone no woman would want to touch.
When Cyrano tricks Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Roxane into thinking it is her beloved Christian speaking, his whispered words of want make her breathing quicken and her fingers quiver with pleasure. He might not touch her, but it has the effect of making his deception feel all the more like a violation.
Eben Figueiredo’s Christian is no dim-bulb pretty boy, rather someone who simply can’t compete in terms of articulacy with a man like Cyrano and knows it. He’s resistant at first to Cyrano’s scheme, to the idea of wooing with someone else’s words, but he wants Roxane to want him. Figueiredo is endearing, but also visibly conflicted in the role and there’s assured support too from Tom Edden as the waspish De Guiche and Michele Austin as the good-natured Madame Ragueneau, who hosts creative writing classes at her cookshop.
After the pulsing, funny first half, the second is more emotionally charged, the stage atmospherically low-lit by Jon Clark. Crimp has Cyrano confess his misdeeds, admit to all he did, and Uwajeh capably conveys Roxane’s hurt and fury at finding out she’s been misled by the two most important men in her life.
Yes there are times when Lloyd’s production feels like it’s striving too hard to generate a hip, post-Hamilton vibe, but it tempers this with a sense of humour – “I saw it in a film by Steve Martin,” jokes Cyrano of his scheme when Christian questions it – and a genuine sense of poignancy, while also featuring an exhilarating performance from the charismatic McAvoy as Rostand’s man of panache.