The Shaw Festival has taken to task the formidable Cyrano de Bergerac, written by Edmond Rostand in 1897, and the result is a delightful and inventive adaptation of the original work based on a translation written by the Shaw’s own Kate Hennig.
In short, the historical comedic-epic is set in the 1600s during the Franco-Spanish War. Our hero, swordsman Cyrano de Bergerac (Tom Rooney) becomes embroiled in a plot of love. Fearful that his physical aberration - he has a very big nose - would turn off the woman he loves, his cousin Roxane (Deborah Hay). Cyrano discovers Roxane loves another, a member of the Gascon soldiery named Christian (Jeff Irving) who is a paragon of beauty yet considerably devoid of grey matter.
The lovers, unbeknownst to each other, enlist Cyrano’s help in aiding the relationship. The clever Cyrano, however, becomes wise to changing affections and plots toward his own benefit. However, the criss-crossing turns comedy into tragedy, much to the work’s credit. While the first three acts are full of wit, verve, and enlightened romantics, the plot turn at the third act’s end leads to a more somber final act.
Hennig’s notes in the program detail some of the explicit changes she’s made from the text, namely that it is more honest to Rostand’s original text. While the play was written with rhyme in mind, translating the words and rhyme from French created a complication – one would have to be sacrificed. Hennig wisely kept the translation as close to Rostand’s, instead transforming it into more relatable prose, and has injected some additional liveliness in the play with the creation of some singing and dancing, all of which the cast was up for. A rather somber ode on the battlefield in the fourth act, in particular, haunts the stage.
Bringing a classic such as Cyrano to the stage is something the Shaw is more than accustomed to, so it was great to see the cast and crew really having fun with the material. At the Royal George, the stage breathes, allowing for real depth of scenery so the director, Chris Abraham, can stage scenes appropriately for an epic, relying on true depth of field rather than a dull, two-dimensional plane. This staging is very effective for Cyrano. When war threatens the Gascons on the field, it’s in the background, yet there is a real sense of foreboding because of the space. There’s no need to simply rely on sound or lighting effects to create a suspenseful mood when the staging can put Cyrano and the Gascons in the midst of battle.
The cast is stacked. There are more than 30 parts listed, split among the 14 cast members, not counting background actors or musicians, but the real weight of the play is on Rooney as Cyrano. Despite his massive facial appendage, which he admits is an emotional achilles heel, Cyrano is fiercely proud. Rooney is energetic as the leader of the Gascon battalion and demonstrates this with fearless swordplay that is matched by his lovelorn, witty wordplay. It’s because of these familiar arm extensions — the pen and the sword — that Rooney hunches down in the shadows and guides the lovers further toward each other. Rooney is energetic, but effortlessly wears the mask of the man torn between truth and the lie. He loves Roxane, and will do anything for her, including helping her win another man’s heart. In private, with his companion Le Bret (Tanja Jacobs), there is no facade and Rooney shows the hopelessness and depression that drives Cyrano. It’s in these moments where, despite the fight he appears to give, Rooney plays Cyrano as a man who knows he’s already defeated. The fight for his pride, his efforts with sword and pen are merely to stay alive, in his mind.
Hopeless romantics Roxane and Christian provide comic relief. Jeff Irving bumbles as Christian, who loves Roxane but lacks the eloquent flowery poetics that Cyrano does. When Christian becomes wise to Cyrano’s affections for Roxane, and that Cyrano’s work in writing letters on behalf of Christian was more effortless than he thought, Irving brings a particularly restrained rage to Christian that is very refreshing. Rather than lash out, though it would create another interesting sword fight (alas, that’s not the direction that Rostand chose to go in 1897), Christian, in his youthful verve and confusion, runs headlong into battle.
Deborah Hay has a lot of fun as the oblivious Roxane. Here is a woman who is so blinded by the beauty of Christian, and smitten by his words by the end. Hay seems to know there is some ridiculousness to Roxane’s betwixt affairs and effectively plays up this “smitten socialite” very nicely. She is, at the very least, an honest fool for love. When she meets the Gascons on the battlefield in a later act, her upper-class expectations are played for laughs. Hay really is a humorous highlight in the somber act.
The leads aside, Cyrano has a vast ensemble cast that pepper the stage to varying degrees of flavour as the adaptation calls for it. The feeling of camaraderie surrounding Cyrano and the Gascons is ever-present, yet from the beginning of the play, before Rooney even makes his clever introduction seated amongst the audience in the Royal George, Cyrano’s power is felt. He is a man whose opinion of others matters, who’s strength and wit is formidable, and he is a man not to be trifled with. When his voice booms throughout the theatre — again, before even taking the stage — it is clear Cyrano is a man who has earned his friends and loyalties. It’s easy to find such a character obnoxious and his companions no better than enablers of bad ethics. Yet, Rooney, Irving, Hay and the rest of the cast make the praise for Cyrano feel earned, and for a man who can at times be dramatic yet melancholic, loving yet loathing, and embattled with himself, this is no small feat.
Cyrano de Bergerac is a classic for a reason, after all. The hero is an emotional wreck, his love isn’t reciprocated and he’s a poet forced into war simply to survive. This is unconventional, of course, but there’s something relatable in it to all of us. Sure, to a degree we all relish those too-perfect heroes, but when looking back on any stories, epics, myths and legends, it’s the imperfect characters we love the most.
Cyrano became a cynic all because he couldn’t look past his nose. Hennig took that and ran with it. Showing that Cyrano sees only his faults and not his true potential, and pays dear for his self-pity, well, that’s a strong lesson that doesn’t get lost in the Shaw’s wonderful and funny production.