A Guide to Modern Playwrights, Plays, and Productions
Cyrano de Bergerac

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 that 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 Davies shrewdly realizes that today’s audiences might well view Rostand’s work as outdated as the opening scene drama critic Cyrano sweeps off the stage of an improvised theater.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.