Chris Eldon Lee reviews “Edmond de Bergerac”, which is at Birmingham Repertory Theatre until Saturday 30th March.
“Cyrano de Bergerac” is simply the most romantic play ever written”. So spoke the American actor Charles Lanyer, shortly after he appeared in it. In the UK, Edmond Rostand’s French classic has been regularly in repertoire for 100 years, with Ralph Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Sher, Kenneth Branagh and Steffan Rhodri in the title role. In short, it is the most successful French play ever written. So the question “How was it written?” has been exercising minds ever since, especially in Paris where Alexis Michalik’s 2016 play on just that subject has clocked up 800 performances.
Now Jeremy San’s new translation of “Edmond de Bergerac” has been given its premiere at Birmingham Rep, and we can see for ourselves why both the original and its off-spring are so enduring.
Cyrano de Bergerac is based on the 17th century story of a soldier poet who falls for beautiful Roxane – only to find her affections lie with his friend Christian. Cyrano is resigned to his prodigious, off-putting, nose. So, when he writes poetic love letters to her, he signs them ‘Christian’ in the hope they will find happiness together.
In “Edmond de Bergerac”, Michalik parallels the lives of the writer and his hero. His play is a boisterous and lovable farce, adorned with some fine (and, occasionally, not so fine) poetry. Roxana Silbert’s production is a lively, exhilarating and joyous ‘hoot’ of a show with some wonderful character acting from all concerned.
Let me give you some examples. There’s Simon Gregor’s outrageous cameo as a boarding house concierge; Josie Lawrence’s gushing ‘I love you all’ portrayal of the devilish diva Sarah Bernhardt; Freddie Fox’s frantically harassed Edmond Rostand; and Henry Goodman’s perfectly weighted anchor roles as Cyrano and the desperate actor who eventually played him 400 times, Constant Coquelin.
The company performs not so much “a play within a play” as a farce within a farce. Think ‘The Play That Goes Wrong’ wedded to ‘Shakespeare In Love’ and you’ll get the genre. What we also get is Michalik’s highly imaginative backstory of how ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ might have been dreamed up – with Rostand going through an equally unrequited love affair in his private life.
Michalik has made most of it up, of course, but it does all fit very nicely… laudably explaining every twist in the famous tale. Capping the farcical adventure is an unadulterated precis of the deeply touching Convent scene finale – where Cyrano makes his deathbed confession. It’s a welcome reminder of just how emotional the original story is.
I found myself associating personally with this play at several levels. I also share Cyrano’s excess in the nose department and, as a (sort of) playwright myself, I share Michalik (and Rostand’s) view that writing is actually quite painful; whereas ‘having written’ is a pleasure. He, like I, prefer to take a true event and embellish it freely. Ideas come when they come – and if they don’t come, you don’t eat. Rostand suffers so badly from this that he hasn’t written anything worthwhile for 2 years. So, he’s desperate. But Michalik gives him the amazing ability to improvise poetry and puts him in a situation where deadlines literally force his hand.
The show is peppered with good theatrical jokes. Casting restrictions oblige Coquelin’s company to deploy male Can Can dancers. His lusting financial backers choose the leading lady – causing Edmond to bemoan producers who foist their mistresses on writers. “How long has that been going on?” he protests. Answer; it still is.
He then has to write a part for the actor (Chizzy Akulolu, playing Maria, playing Cyrano’s muse Roxane) that has enough lines to make the audience love her … but not too many to have to learn.
Michalik also cheekily reduces famous names to walk-on parts – such as Feydeau, Ravel, Stanislavsky and Chekhov (who suggests the Convent climax to Rostand). He’s having fun, the actors are clearly having fun, and so did last night’s audience.
The story of Cyrano is, perhaps, a ‘French thing’ … so Parisians are likely to adore this new play a touch more than Brummies. But I suspect, like Cyrano’s nose, it will ‘run and run’.