How do you stage a work full of romantic flourishes
as an Errol Flynn movie or “The Count of Monte Cristo,” the potboiler
in which Eugene O’Neill’s father toured?
Director Howard Davies found the right way by presenting
“Cyrano de Bergerac” at the National Theatre as an audience-pleaser
still retains its proboscis-challenged hero, a cynical, witty,
yet sensitive iconoclast in 17th-century France.
Edmond Rostand wrote the work
in 1897 as a melodramatic, verse-laden
riposte to the realism of Ibsen.
Mr. Davies shrewdly realizes that today’s audiences might
well view Rostand’s work as outdated as the opening scene drama
critic Cyrano sweeps off the stage of an improvised theater. So
this director combines the realism of a smoke-filled battle scene
with updated dialogue that sounds like speech but is actually
rhyming couplets by Derek Mahon.
He retains, as performed by Stephen Rea, the hero as outsider
who covers the pain of his disfigurement with swaggering.
Et Voila: the audience cheers.
William Dudley’s skeleton scaffolding allows
the action to be continuous, providing a setting for action that
takes place in niches, walkways, and ladders.
This frame houses Roxane’s balcony as well as a hiding
place for Cyrano to provide for tongue-tied Christian the words
of love that woo her. Then it becomes a scene of battle, with exploding
bursts lighting up the ragged and starving outnumbered soldiers,
some killed and falling to the ground from above, while seven
dancers as soldiers depict the tormented writhing of the dying.
It was an inspiration on Mr. Davies’s part to include dancers
among Cyrano’s group of Gascogne cadets, to lift the action beyond
realism as they gracefully fence or, in the battle scene, move
in slow motion to depict the soldiers under attack. The movement
and choreography are by Christopher Bruce.
The principals are outstanding: Claire Price
as Roxane, Zubin Varla as Christian, and Malcom Storry as Count
de Guiche. Stephen Rea is excellent as a Cyrano for today.
If he devoured the scenery like Jose Ferrer in the role
fifty years ago, today’s audience might be bemused but never engaged.
Mr. Rea’s Cyrano is smaller, like his white plume, which
stands for the “panache” he values, the flourish that accompanies
an unselfish act or a witty remark.
Because of his talent, he gives us a human hero rather
than an oddity, and his final scene with Roxane is truly moving,
when he admits, as he is dying, that the love letters were his,
and as she discovers it is he, not Christian, she has loved.