Taking the mickey - Buffet Girl (Jessica Dyas) and Bellerose (Angela Bain) with, centre, failed Thespian Montfleury (Michael Hugo). Pictures: Nobby Clark


Oxford Playhouse


Some background first. Cyrano de Bergerac (here portrayed by Christian Edwards), the hero - in part anti-hero - of Edmond Rostand’s hit play of 1897, was a real person. His life (c1619-1655) was not long: he was dead by 36.

He earned fame in many capacities, not all favourable: as a young drinker, libertine, gambler and squanderer; as a gifted playwright and satirical novelist, possibly in line of literary descent from Rabelais; as a skilled swordsman, duellist and reckless young guards fighter against the Spanish occupiers of the Netherlands in the first Arras battle of 1640.

There he received a sword wound, having been damaged already (by a musket) recapturing Mouzon, further south on the present Belgian border, in the Ardennes. This was the disputed area: the French feared the Spaniards would expand to take over France’s norther provinces; the Spanish doubtless feared the opposite.

He was in fact Savinien de Cyrano (the family name), the fourth of five sons and a daughter. Aged three, if the story is correct, the family moved to Bergerac, in the north Dordogne. Bergerac is immediately above the River Garonne, and adjacent to the historic area of Gascony (France’s ‘northern’ Basque country). Cyrano was more probably an actual Gascon – the nation were famous fighters, witness Dumas’ D’Artagnan) by descent.

Cyrano was in fact of minor patrician stock and indeed Royal patronage-related. His paternal grandfather was a Royal counsellor (‘conseiller du roi’), and his maternal grandfather Controller of Finances of Paris (‘contrôleur des finances en la recette générale de Paris’) - a forerunner of the great Fouquet - whose father had also controlled the Royal finances. An earlier antecedent had been official doctor to three Valois kings including, Henry VII’s rival François 1st, in the early to mid 1500s.


Cyrano de Bergerac (Christian Edwards), sword in hand. But do we believe in his swordsmanship, or is it just braggadocio and bravado.

So Cyrano seems to have been a bit of a let-down. The possibility that he was homosexual, or bisexual, whether before or since embarking on military life, might give added force – or a different kind of pathos - to the great penultimate scene where despite his own romantic attachment he woos Roxane on the part of her young lover, Baron Christian de Neuvillette.

The comic scene where Rostand makes Cyrano claim to have descended ‘from the moon’ is rooted – anachronistically - in one of the latter’s books: ‘The States and Empires of the Moon’, which appeared (with a similar volume about the Sun) a decade or more after his death: an early example of what we now know as Science Fiction: the nearest parallels, perhaps, would be Germany’s ‘The Adventures of Baron Munchausen’, or our own ‘Gulliver’s.Travels’. He even turned his pen against the newly-promoted Cardinal Mazarin, now chief minister to the (five to ten year old) Louis XIV; obliged to flee, Cyrano took refuge with his family’s relations by returning to Bergerac; however he died and was buried just south of Paris.

The longed-for Roxane (played by Sharon Singh) in real life was Cyrano’s cousin; however the tale of their not-to-be romance is fictional, the product of Rostand’s powerful imagination. One other piece of history in the play is the character Le Bret (the splendidly characterful, plus musical, Andrew Whitehead) who hailed from Périgord, immediately north and east of Bergerac, in deep southern France (there have in fact been references to Cyrano’s ‘racines périgordiens). Their mutual loyalty, patently displayed in the play and in this production of Conrad Nelson, is obvious. Were they childhood friends, even before their teens? Either way, Le Bret is the character on whom Cyrano can always, unquestioningly, rely. It’s one of those small bits of interaction – many other characters from this entourage depict it admirably – where this attractively – indeed cleverly – moved Northern Broadsides production really scores.

This Cyrano from Barrie Rutter’s award-winning Northern Broadsides in conjunction with the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire, is a new version, by actress-playwright-translator Deborah McAndrew, a regular collaborator with Rutter’s company (witness A Government Inspector, The Bells, Vacuum, Accident al Death of an Anarchist, The Grand Gesture, and her First World War original drama An August Bank Holiday Lark; her next project is Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall) of Edmond Rostand’s smash hit play of 1897, Cyrano de Bergerac.


'Tinpot toff' - Roxane (Sharon Singh) copes with the attentions of rich De Guiche (Andy Cryer)

It’s a brave – and largely successful – attempt at evoking the atmosphere of Louis XIII and Richelieu’s France, at the outset of the Enlightenment. In Rostand’s celebrated play, directed here by Conrad Nelson – who also composed the strikingly apt, sometimes haunting, score, and who has directed many of the company’s bristling stageworks - much hinges on the central character (of whom more anon).

But what made this production was the buzzing energy and inventiveness from the very outset of a lively and attractive team, half of whom – how one admires this – were assured musicians as well as capable actors.

Thus one’s eye was drawn, time and again, to (as mentioned above) Andrew Whitehead’s Le Bret (the immensely appealing violin-player, with his rouged drinker’s face and Bardolph nose), to Paul Barnhill’s Le Ragueneau (the chef and pastry maker), to Andy Cryer’s pompous suitor De Guiche (‘a tinpot toff’, in McAndrew’s highly successful, accessible translation) – and above all, to the joyously freethinking performance of Francesca Mills, whose phenomenal gifts both lent a serious, rather poignant character and at the same time drew countless laughs, using her diminutive size to win over the audience effortlessly. Complete with utterly brilliant facials, and arguably a unique rhythmic sense, she almost stole the show – and deservedly so. The fact that she looked like a wee chappie as well as a girl brought the feel of an operatic travesti. Terrific.

So much was good. The costumes (uncredited but from the New Vic Costume Department), were a treat: 17th century attire can so easily look ungainly, a kind of floppy, sloppy equivalent of the worst Baroque church interiors. These were all perfect, and the contrasts in colours, where they occur (even where grey-browns or yellow-browns predominated) they added differentiation and distinctiveness to each character, from the chef’s apron to the delicious sight of Mills and two others clad later on in Nuns’ habit. In fact the highly varied girls’ costumes (for Jessica Dyas and Angela Bain) were a joy, too.

But much more important – crucial to the whole impact - is the stunning ‘Enlightenment’ set of designer Lis Evans. It looked like something dreamed up by Copernicus, full of mysterious suns and planetary interrelations, almost as OTT – yet ideal - as the fancy, overblown mock-stage set that with its jumped-up, poseurish actors and gut-churning scripts that infuriate Cyrano in the celebrated film. Very clever, very appropriate, and an incredibly eye-pleasing, as well as teasing, intellectual, mind-challenging backdrop for the whole evening. The lighting, which gave a sort of candlelit, sometimes murky feel, was stylishly based, I assume, on selected paintings of the time. I remember a portrait of Frederick the Great’s court that had exactly the same feel.


Romance by proxy - Sharon Singh as Roxane and Adam Barlow as the tongue-tied Christian de Neuvillette

The direction by Conrad Nelson was impressively precise. There was some fine-tuned use of the two or three levels that Evans had provided him with. Time and again, some 10 or 12 characters were creatively blocked (most of the carousing was part designedly, part instinctively very well nurtured), adding significantly – and relevantly - to the visuals There was the intermittent talk of wooing, or thinking about wooing (‘She’s a little bookish for my taste, but each to his own’), which becomes so crucial and tear-jerking near the close. 

The trouble with all this was there was, to put it cruelly, a Cyrano-sized hole in this otherwise flourishing production. Christian Edwards’ nose (focal) was quite, though not overwhelmingly, good. His moves, postures, even speaking, less so. When you think of this role in the hands of a dramatic giant like Depardieu, you realise both what is needed for the part and what can be made of it. I’m afraid there was little of that. Frankly, Edwards - often lack-a-daisical, mooching, feckless, all but inane - too often bored me, and his interaction with the other characters didn’t offer them much support either. It was a real case of ongoing bathos. He even fought weedily (the Fight Director being the stunningly well named Philip d’Orlêans, who did serve up one brilliant knocking flat midway, and a passable enaction of the 30 Years War siege of Arras).

However – to be fair - Edwards’ attempt at Cyrano did come good on just a few occasions. For instance, when he sang – rather well (one of the most memorable songs came from pâtissier Ragueneau), his impotent moves actually improved markedly as he intoned: indeed flew up so many notches that one could see clearly why he was cast, but also the woeful deficiency of the rest of it. Piêce de resistance - he was also a presentable trombonist.

Secondly, he did shine in one or two telling semi-soliloquies. Most importantly of all, he got the last scene or scenes, 14 years on, right: the wooing of Singh’s Edinburgh-accent, where Cyrano great-heartedly brings instinctive, true poetry to win her to his pretty but shy, hesitant, even dim-witted young rival, Christian, Baron de Neuvillette (gently and attractively characterised by Adam Barlow; you can see how a gay subtext could work in some productions) even as his own heart is breaking and death seems to wag its finger at him (though Christian dies first, at Arras: his own family came, ironically, from the Somme area of France, part of modern Picardie).



A moment of discovery - Christian Edwards as Cyrano and Sharon Singh as Roxane

There was no weakness here: to match Depardieu’s speaking of those roseate lines might seem well-nigh impossible, but Cyrano and Roxane (she so good in the letter scene and the ultimate realisation of Cyrano’s subterfuge) both pulled off this passage, and the comedy between Cyrano and the gauche, inexperienced Christian was great fun. Only Edwards’ moves – he neither looks blind nor has been trained by Nelson to move blindly – let him down. Not his delivery: ‘The journey’s now along that shaft of moon – to oblivion’, he says tellingly. This play is a dance of death – a long, increasingly tired journey to - the ultimate nothing.

Nelson’s music was mostly on stage on show: a pair of clarinets, flutes, trumpet, violone (prototype double-bass) and violin, plus mandolin, guitar, accordion and tambourine; even what sounded and looked like a vibraphone - all of them visible, when not onstage, then sidestage, and all of them attractively and masterfully played. The style varied: we got a burst of Kurt Weill and Mack the Knife; the feel of a sad Scottish (rather than Irish) folk melody and duet; and much else. It all seemed to fit.

Only late on are we reminded, so crucially, that these brazen types are not exactly Parisien: several do actually hail from Gascony (‘from the fields of Aquitaine’), which borders on the Spanish Basque territory (the names are the same). That’s where they get their rough edges, their intense mutual loyalty, their fighting prowess, and their willingness to take risks. They need all that: the 30 Years War bangs and explosions supplied by James Earls-Davis were horrifyingly realistic. As in 1917-18, Arras was clearly no pushover.      

There were a load of comic lines, Rostand being revisited by McAndrew’s translation: ‘I want to nibble your neck’; ‘Get up there, you pollock’; ‘Kiss? We’re French: it’s unnatural’; and Cyrano’s wonderful sequence about being the ‘man who fell from the moon’, which I remember so vividly from a childhood ‘Classics Illustrated’ picture comic of the play. Some of these later stages were played in a subdued, sometimes blue, light (Daniella Beattie), which created quite an atmosphere. It seems that just about all departments got it right. I for one thoroughly enjoyed myself.

Roderic Dunnett


Northern Broadside

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