Rostand’s play, Cyrano de Bergerac, is a pyrotechnic affair, exploding everywhere with wit, wordplay, [s]wordplay, fencing with foils and fencing with words. It begins in a theatre where the action is theatrically huge; it takes us to a pastry shop where the baker, who is as prodigal with his verses as he is with his brioches, holds a convention of poets, all of them sweet on romanticism; we move to the intimacy of the house of Madeleine Robin, immortalised as Roxanne; from there we are taken to the epic siege of Arras where hunger, thirst, dust and death prevail, and finally, to a convent outside Paris, fourteen years later, to which Roxanne has retired and where Cyrano, a privileged visitor, brings news of the outside world to her in his ‘gazette’. In these five acts, there are comedy, lyricism, satire, epic and tragedy - an effervescent firework display which, you might think, would require an extravagant space in which to perform it.
This was my first visit to the Minster School’s new performance space. I liked it. The raked seating meant everyone had a clear view. The set, which by definition, had to be multi-purpose, was ingenious. Ivy covered walls, with a pastoral view through an arched window, served perfectly well as a theatre set, as interiors, and as an exterior courtyard in the wooing of Roxanne. Various platforms in geometrical shapes provided opportunities for moving the cast into attractive tableaux. Sometimes, this meant a choric hinterland to action happening downstage. At other times - the girls’ lyrical interludes, for instance, and the cadets’ pre-battle despondency, including their own haunting chorus - these different levels meant that we could see the boys and girls as individuals, as well as members of an ensemble. The poignancy of the ballads, by the way, was accentuated by Julia on guitar and Isaac on drum.
I have seen enough of Mrs Wafer’s work as a director to have had no worries about how she would manage such an extravagantly epic piece in a relatively small space and I was right. After all, while the Spanish cannon might be booming outside Arras, at the core of the play is the very intimate question of Cyrano’s love for Roxanne and the sacrifice of his own feelings in favour of Christian de Neuvillette, the word-bound puppy she loves. I arrived early, while storm Deirdre raged outside, and was lucky enough to secure a front row seat. One great compliment to this production is that, despite the physical proximity of the audience to the stage, every single member of the cast, without exception, was engaged in the universe of the play at every moment. We readily suspended disbelief - even about Cyrano’s nose - the most convincing prosthetic I have ever seen.
The role of Cyrano is demanding: he must move with agility through a complex register of moods, sometimes playful, sometimes earnest, sometimes lofty, fierce and violent, gentle, rhapsodic, bitter, ironical - all by turns. It must be impossible to pin him down. He must inspire fear and respect but also loyalty and love. He is a master of words and yet, on the one subject closest to his heart, he must be silent. Wooing Roxanne on behalf of Christian, he must generate words which are the opposite of what he feels. He can pour his love into his letters from the battlefield - but he cannot sign them with his own name.
Ted’s realisation of Cyrano captured all this with great sensitivity - he inhabited the role with total conviction in every detail. I loved his tremendous ode to his own nose which modulated from heroic to gross (and all stations between) with amazing virtuosity. His verbal duel with the florid and sumptuously pompous actor Montfleury, played with élan by the inimitable Stephenson Catney, was as vigorous as his physical sword fight with the simperingly arrogant Valvert - Charlie Dickinson in blue silk and the most wonderful Spanish slops (voluminous breeches). Ted’s ebullient sway over the rest of the characters was also a joy. He might rhapsodize on his own disfigurement but woe betide anyone else who even referred to it - a catastrophic mistake made by one of the cadets (Charlie) who was laid flat out en passant by a casual swipe to the head from a departing Cyrano.
One of the defining characteristics of Cyrano’s character is his capacity for improvisation. The way in which Ted counted out syllables in the air before launching into a poem of many verses was delightful and later he had the audience convulsed with his falsetto account of his fall from the moon with a veil over his head. He reminded me of Mercutio in the fountain scene in Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet - in a desperate situation, yet still verbally fertile. Here and elsewhere, Cyrano engages in repartee, and Ted’s timing was flawless. It was clear that he had thought about the psychological possibility that Cyrano so often uses verbal contention as a compensation for being blighted with that prodigious hooter.
The actress who plays Roxanne is also faced with a tall order. It would be too easy to see her as giddy and shallow. It is certainly true that she has been shaped by a romantic idea of love as characterised by some of the lamer poetry emanating from Ragueneau’s baker’s shop but, let’s be honest, whilst we all know that, morally, beauty is only skin deep, we also know that, in reality, the world belongs to the young and the beautiful. So, it is only natural that Roxanne should fall for Christian, and that Cyrano, for all his wit, learning, and manly prowess, must be left out in the cold, and all because of his unappealing proboscis.
In the eternal triangle it is eternally painful to be loved only ‘as a friend’.
Roxanne matures, of course. She has the courage and the wit to blag her way through the battle lines at Arras. Her final recognition that it is really Cyrano whom she has loved all along is deeply moving, but not so easy to pull off. Olivia managed all this in a very nuanced performance. An elegant turn of the head or a slight movement of the eye, conveyed a kind of arch complicity with the audience when confronted with her suitors early on. This worked very well in the intimacy of a studio, as did her encouragement to every single cadet before the battle. Olivia’s composed reception of Cyrano’s news in the final scene, as she sits at her embroidery frame with her back to him, unaware that he is dying was subtle and heartbreaking.
Jacob, as the tongue-tied Christian, also had a difficult role. We have to like him despite his being a bit of a twit and we really have to care when he is one of the first to die in the battle. I found Jacob characterised Christian’s innocence in such a charming way that we were indulgent to his faults.
Ted, Jacob and Olivia played what is sometimes called the balcony scene, but which I will call the ventriloquism scene, superbly. Cyrano agrees to supply Christian with the kind of love-lingo that he knows will make Roxanne swoon but Christian makes such a hash of it that Cyrano has to take over. Eventually, Cyrano manages to manoeuvre Roxanne into accepting a kiss. Christian has to come out from the shadows as himself. The kiss itself is sweet but Jacob milked wonderfully all the comedy in Christian’s verbal ineptitude, by finally declaring Roxanne’s neck as ‘really nice’. The sophisticated interplay between these three was a delight.
James gave us a very accomplished performance as Ragueneau, the Baker-Poet. He is so besotted with the muse of poetry that he is prepared to gives pies away in order to recover the sheet of verses in which they have been wrapped by his shrewish wife, played snappily by Orlagh. James conveyed with energy the decency of the man, especially when he smuggles food to the starving cadets and as he weeps for the dying Cyrano. His grief here appeared so genuine that it added pathos to the final scene.
Harry was nimble as a pickpocket and later as an apprentice. He too generated a great deal of energy and his engagement in the action was total. Harry, along with Amaya, Julia and Orlagh, were very much responsible for moving stage furniture between scenes with an efficiency that made the whole thing seamless and they did all this, not only with alacrity, but in character.
Le Bret, commander of the cadets was played by Isaac with great authority and stage presence, while James played Lignière, an impoverished poet, with appropriate bravura. His drunken scene was most convincing. Alexandr played the devious Comte de Guiche as a slippery customer. He too is in love with Roxanne and his manipulations and machinations in order to claim her for himself contrasted powerfully with Cyrano’s self-sacrifice. At the end of the play, time has mellowed him and Alexandr managed the transformation convincingly.
Although this is a play with a ‘star’ character, you know that in a Wafer production a star mentality will not prevail. The attention to detail of every member of the supporting cast was wonderful to behold. Amaya and Julia were sharp businesswomen in running the ‘theatre’ and the refreshments. Harriet was suitably matronly in marshalling a charming pair of children, differing each night according to availability, I believe, from a squad comprising: Tess, Honey, Martha, Byron, and Jamie. The girls and women of the town (Libby, Erin, Mia, Frances, Scarlet and Milly) were feisty and strong, and yet each was an individual who had thought about her role. This was specially commendable as there was a degree of doubling-up: Amaya, Julia and Orlagh were also nuns later on, serene and composed but not averse to a bit of a demure giggle at times. Amaya was also Bellerose, so I imagine she had to make some pretty deft costume changes. Let me just say here, that all the costumes were glorious, historically exact and very pleasing to the eye in colour and texture.
I want to say a special word about the cadets. They could so easily have been gormless extras but this was not the case here. Each of them realised the character of an individual human being exposed to tragic circumstances. Their stoical, and even witty, response to hunger and thirst and the other horrors of warfare echoes down the ages; this felt authentic and moving. Credit then to Ben, Matthew, Francis, Gabriel, Charlie, Edward, Henry and Leo. When the battle came, it was highly stylised, as it had to be in a studio space - yet, emotionally, it was profoundly convincing. Visually, it reminded me of a painting by Goya. When Gabriel fell dead at my feet, I was genuinely shocked. Only moments before he had been carving a little sailing vessel, for who knows what loved one. And every single one of them attended to detail in the same way, and because they believed and inhabited the action, so did the audience.
Praise as ever to the invisibles, to the labourers and the fabulous geeks who run lighting and sound, build sets, and crew on the night. A big wave to Old Minsterian, Christopher Mitchell, who provided original music. I understand that members of the cast were involved in the technics throughout the preparation period. No wonder the show had such coherence.
Cyrano wears a flamboyant white plume in his hat. The French word for such a feather is un panache. The dying Cyrano says that he will sweep the threshold of Heaven with his panache. Derived from Rostand’s play, the word has passed into both English and French as expressing the elements of Cyrano’s character: to do something with swashbuckling zest is to do it with panache. The word could aptly be used to describe everything about this magnificent production.