Cyrano de Bergerac: Broadsiders know best

Cyrano and Roxane

Cyrano, very faithful to the original story yet made into their own, Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson once again gift Northern Broadsides with a flawless adaptation of a classic play.

Is there no stopping Deborah McAndrew and Conrad Nelson? Although producing their plays under the banner of Northern Broadsides, the husband-and-wife team of writer and director are practically a company within their own right. Not that I think Northern Broadsides is complaining. McAndrew and Nelson have already gifted them hits such as Accidental Death of an AnarchistA Government Inspector and The Grand Gesture (as well as a good collaboration with Northern Broadsides proper with An August Bank Holiday Lark). Barrie Rutter is very lucky to have got them on board.

One thing is missing from this adaptation that is common to previous McAndrews adaptation which some fans of hers may miss. Up to now, she has transplanted classic tales to modern day settings very successfully – tales of petty despotism and political opportunism are just as fitting today as they were a century ago. This time, however, she’s opted to keep the play its original setting of Paris in 1640 at the time leading up to the siege of Arras. Our nasally-enhanced hero Cyrano is still commander to cadet Christian, and he still has the unenviable task from his beautiful and beloved cousin Roxane to do the match-making between her and the new boy in town.

There is a good reason to stay faithful to the original Parisian setting: it works. There were obvious ways of making the other tales work in modern settings, but it’s not so clear how you could make that work here; at least, not without a major rewrite of the story. Two years ago Northern Stage tried to transplant it to a modern-day fencing gymnasium, with a mixture of modern fencing outfits and classic duelling regalia. It worked a lot better than I expected, with the gym equipment put to use in clever ways, but there was no escaping the fact I spent most of the first half trying to figure out what was going on.

That confusion, I understand, was the thing McAndrews wanted to avoid at all costs: she wanted the play to be easy to follow by anyone who’s watching it for the first time. And this she largely succeeds in doing – even bearing in mind this is the second time I’ve seen the play, there was little doubt what was going on when an early brawl in a theatre slowly reveals Cyrano secret and Christian’s overt feelings for Roxanne, but also those of De Guiche, who prefers power over poetry as his method of wooing. Quite important, as his power will be used for revenge not before too long. This may not be the version for purists who love the original structure in verse – for that, you’ll need literary translations such as Anthony Burgess’s as used by Northern Stage – but it opens up the fantastic story of Edmond Rostand’s classic to for more people. One piece of faithfulness to the text often forgotten though: many famous productions cast a middle-aged man as Cyrano; in this play, Cyrano is a younger man, just the the real Cyrano was.

Whilst die-hard McAndrews/Nelson fans might miss the modern setting, everything else that makes their versions of plays amazing is out there in force. As well as McAndrews’ usual clarity she brings to all her adaptation, we also have Conrad Neslon’s speciality of the music. Once again, there’s multi-talented cast who sing and play a wide range of instruments. The music is dotted throughout the play, always right for the current mood of the story, but it never slows the play down and never puts the plot on pause the way that some musicals do. A particularly enjoyable highlight was the moon song, as Cyrano pretends to be a batty old lady in a bid to stall De Guiche as Christian and Roxanne’s secret wedding takes place.

There was just one annoyance in the production: this might be an unfair criticism related to where I was sat, but the actors standing on the elevated part of the stage frequently blocked the view into the rest of the stage. You can never avoid this completely in the round, but this happened too often. I normally overlook this for touring companies who have to switch between the round and the end-stage on the fly, but as their tour starts with a three-week run in the New Vic, they really should have taken this into account better. Especially when half the time it could easily have been addressed by a small tweak moving an actor a pace of two to get them in front of a stage entrance where they weren’t blocking anyone’s sightlines. An unexpected let-down as the New Vic and Northern Broadsides are both generally good at avoiding this problem.

That tiny niggle, however, is the most I can find fault with. Far too often classic plays are kept inaccessible from wider audiences with a misguided mindset that it’s your responsibility to understand the old text and your fault if you don’t. Deborah McAndrew has done a fine job of making it understandable to everyone from the most literature buffs to novices. This adaptation is quite a conservative one by McAndrew’s standards, without the transplant to a modern setting that’s been her trademark up to now, but everything else that McAndrew and Nelson trademark their plays with is out in force. The New Vic couldn’t have had a better company to do a three-week visit, and Northern Broadsides surely have a successful tour on their hands in a month’s time.

Cyrano de Bergerac runs at the New Vic until the 25th February before touring, calling at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on the 28th February – 4th March, the Stephen Joseph Theatre on the 4th-8th March, and York Theatre Royal on the 11th-15th April.

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