Cyrano de Bergerac had a very big nose. So big in fact that Edmund Rostand immortalised it in his 1897 comic masterpiece, written almost 250 years after his eponymous hero’s death.
Apart from the nose, and Cyrano’s position as a member of the Cadets (a regiment of noblemen fighting for the King of France), everything else in the story is fiction. Incredibly successful fiction. The play has been translated and seen all over the world, and a number of movies have been based on the story, including Roxanne starring Steve Martin.
Northern Broadsides’ new version by Deborah McAndrew is a worthy addition to the canon. Adapted in verse like the original, McAndrew has great fun with rhymes and rhyme schemes, and stays faithful to the structure of the story. It’s a classic Broadsides ensemble show, performed by an accomplished group of actors and musicians, with music composed by theatrical polymath Conrad Nelson, who also directs.
The story turns on the idea that Cyrano – an extremely talented man in every respect – considers himself so ugly because of his nose that no woman could ever love him, especially not his cousin Roxanne with whom he is deeply in love. So when Roxanne falls in love at first sight with the beautiful but uneducated yokel Christian, a new recruit to the Cadets, Cyrano volunteers to write his love letters for him. As the billet-doux pour in, Roxanne becomes ever more besotted and matters are further complicated by Cyrano’s commanding officer, the Count de Guiche, who, although married and many years her senior, is pursuing Roxanne with relentless persistence. As McAndrew puts it: “What a Count.” Then suddenly, as so often happened in the 17th Century, everybody heads off to war.
The moral complications of the plot’s resolution, which are considerable, can only be examined if you give away the story (spoiler alert ahead). But be assured it’s a smashing production, and although it runs at nearly three hours including interval, it didn’t seem that long. It would be invidious to pick out particular performances in such an excellent ensemble, but there was a moment in Act One where I thought Francesca Mills was going to pick up the show, put it in her pocket and take it home.
The production started its tour in the round at the New Vic in Stoke-on-Trent. On the first night at the West Yorkshire Playhouse there were one or two teething problems but these are small details that can be easily fixed.
And so to the spoilers. Cyrano carries on writing the billet-doux, Roxanne marries Christian to stave off de Guiche, but the relationship remains unconsummated as de Guiche sends everyone off to war. Then Roxanne turns up at the siege of Arras, Christian realises that Cyrano loves her more than he does and is willing to give her up, but he is killed before he can tell her. Fourteen years later Roxanne is living in a convent with what she thinks is Christian’s last letter clasped to her bosom, and Cyrano visits every Saturday. However, on the day we see them, Cyrano has been fatally wounded by a falling log and visits Roxanne while he is dying from a head wound. Roxanne realises that it was Cyrano who wrote the notes all along, and declares her love for him, but too late.
So, after Christian is killed, why didn’t Cyrano tell Roxanne he was the author?
Presumably he thought her love was pure and didn’t want to interfere, and better that she spent her life locked away in a convent where he could visit than have her marry someone else. As for Roxanne, if it t’were me I would be livid at the discovery of Cyrano’s deception but, somehow, she has realised he is a fine man and she can love him despite his looks.
I could believe all this if, at the start, Roxanne was, say, 15-years-old, and therefore more likely to be seduced by Christian’s good looks. But by 29 you’d think she would have realised there was more to a man than the nose in his face. The problem with the production is that Roxanne is clearly a grown-up at the beginning, so it’s harder to succumb to the deception, and her reversal at the end isn’t adequately explained.
I’d have given Cyrano a good kicking, even if he was dying. See what you think.
Cyrano is currently on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds until March 4, 2017 as part of a tour of the North. For tickets, see www.wyp.org.uk/events/cyrano/tickets. For tour details, click here.