Review - Cyrano de Bergerac starring James McAvoy at the Playhouse Theatre
Here is Cyrano de Bergerac, Edmond Rostand's famous French verse drama originally premiered in Paris in 1867, but not as you nose it. The hero, who probably has the most famous proboscis in all of literature after Pinocchio, is denied an outsize snout in a new production that launches a new residency for the Jamie Lloyd Company at the Playhouse Theatre; instead, as played by the buff and matinee-idol handsome film star James McAvoy with no change to his face at all, it could strain credulity that he feels physically challenged, and instead is forced to live his romantic life vicariously by courting his beloved Roxane through the words he gives to Christian to speak for him.
So we have to take on trust on the information that others give us about it: Leila tells Ligniere, his nose is what defines him - "the enormity of his nose is a deformity which those who've never seen it can hardly imagine."
It's not the only bold choice that Lloyd makes in his arresting - and sometimes intentionally alienating - production. Presented in a new, "freely adapted" version by Martin Crimp, it is colloquial and modern, and spoken in a version of rap. Call it the Hamilton effect: while I've long anticipated that musical theatre would follow in its footsteps, classic plays are obviously fair game, too, for multi-cultural re-appropriations of fictional tales as well as historical ones like Six, the hit London musical that is heading out on a UK tour and to Broadway next year.
Crimp's language is certainly agile and playful: early on, Christian sets up his stall by declaring, "Look, I might not come from Paris,/ but I work out and I'm pretty fit/ and verse or no verse I'd like to point out right now/ I don't take any shit."
The same is true of this staging, which is presented as a live poetry jam night, with characters stepping up to microphones to deliver their speeches, or otherwise amplified throughout. At first, I found it difficult to engage, but Lloyd and his diverse company are so totally committed to it that resistance becomes futile, and you go with the flow.
I wouldn't necessarily want all my classics to be delivered in this way, but Lloyd's company is committed to attracting a youthful audience (cheaper tickets are being made available on specified performances to under 30s, key workers and those on benefits, and free tickets are also being distributed to secondary state schools and community organisations).
It is also thrilling to see McAvoy renewing his commitment to live theatre, after previously appearing for Lloyd in the title role of Macbeth and leading the cast of The Ruling Class, both at Trafalgar Studios. He is a compulsively watchable actor who brings a vital sense of both energy and danger to the stage.
Eben Figueiredo and Anita-Joy Uwajeh's Christian and Roxane make youthful ardent lovers - but it is McAvoy who breaks your heart.
Cyrano de Bergerac tickets are available now.