Bringing seventeenth-century France to life, the cast of Northern Broadsides’ Cyrano combine slapstick physicality, musical prowess and poetic witticisms by the bucket-load.
The set is simple: wall hangings of old-fashioned astrological images meet a colourful stage floor, with three permanent rostrums. While the muted colours suggest the age of the piece, the simplicity allows this production to resonate far beyond its temporal and geographical confines.
Seventeenth-century costumes add a sense of archaic grandeur; yet the updated script introduces a playful use of contemporary slang and rhymes defined by a diversity of regional accents. Deborah McAndrew’s script is respectful of the original genre, yet provides plentiful laughs for a modern audience. This is compounded by the performers’ interpretations of the script: aware of the unnatural style of delivery, the rhyme scheme adopted by the verse is, at times, intentionally laboured to successfully illicit a laugh.
But that is certainly not to say that the production rests entirely on the playful and intelligent writing. There is a great sense of camp, almost pantomimic, light-hearted physicality among the company: bearded men in dresses, overly ‘lovey’ actors and poets, and a petticoat made of pastries all increase the silliness. After all, a comedy based entirely on a man with a big nose ought to be silly! Under Conrad Nelson’s direction, the cast embrace the ridiculousness and indulge in self-ridicule, much to the audience’s delight.
Verbal and physical elements are drawn seamlessly together through the wonderful use of music in the piece. The cast skilfully impress as they play a variety of instruments onstage. While working well to adorn gaps between scenes, the well-written songs also usefully advance the plot. Yet the singing and instrumental accompaniment never replace dialogue in a sickly Broadway fashion; rather, the music adds an additional layer of texture and another salute to the original age and style of the story.
All of the elements discussed combine joyously in the ‘man in the moon’ sequence at the end of the first act. Musicians in masks, singing, dancing, disco lights and silly voices come together to epitomise the multitudinous genre of Cyrano. The story preaches that no man can have it all, but perhaps a play can!
In the eponymous role, Christian Edwards as Cyrano is masterful. He wins the audience over from his first, joke-filled scene and proceeds to strike a lovely balance between the eloquent classical lover and the cheeky northern lad. He and Adam Barlow, as Christian, play a great comedy double-act. Roxane, played by Sharon Singh, is sassy and intelligent, just as the playwright intended. However, at moments of high emotion, I felt her performance to be a little too stoic.
Michael Hugo, in the choric role of Ligniere, is an inspired addition to the piece. He sets the tone of what is to come and guides the audience through any difficult plot points. In fact, the ensemble as a whole work wonderfully together to support the leading lovers with flair and humour; extraneous characters distract from the plot becoming too linear, yet never detract from the gravity of that leading story.
The only possible downsides: owing to the focus on eloquent language (in the overall production and within the plot itself) quite a lot of action is relegated offstage. While this style stays true to the classical nature of the piece, it could perhaps be exciting to have some of the battle scenes fought in the audience’s view. The fencing match at the beginning gears us up for a dramatic war that is then fought entirely offstage.
Overall, Cyrano manages to bring a classical comedy bang up to date, without ever resorting to the dangerous realm of ‘modern-day adaptation’. As an audience, we were impressed, amused and, at times, aptly moved by the textured performance provided by Northern Broadsides. As the company aren’t afraid to have a great deal of fun with a classical text, the audience are able to enjoy this comedy as originally intended: with raucous laughter.
Catch Cyrano at West Yorkshire Playhouse until 4th March.