Dispense with everything you think you know about this play: Martin Crimp’s re-imagining will blow your mind. Whilst this play is surely not everyone’s cup of tea, if you have a sense of humour, you’re bound to split your sides laughing at this witty, relevant new take on Edmond Rostand’s 1897 comedy.
I can’t say I ever expected to sit in The Playhouse listening to Stormzy blasting out from the speakers, and yet it happened, setting the tone for what was to come. Using a mix of spoken word, battle rap, beatboxing and poetic recitation Crimp transforms Cyrano de Bergerac into a thought-provoking commentary on verse – the Stormzy very quickly made sense. The variation of delivery combined with the use of accents (James McAvoy’s frankly dreamy Scottish accent, Northern Irish tones, East London, Australian, and West Indian, to name but a few) and the manipulation of these voices made the production utterly captivating.
In fact, this 19th century comedy has truly been brought into the 21st century. Although a little odd, considering we are told that we’re in a theatre in Paris in the 1640’s, the minimalistic set of whitewashed plywood, orange classroom chairs and a few microphones combined with the adidas tracksuits (who knew they were the height of 17th century Parisian fashion?) makes us think about the words in a very modern context. Crimp also manages to slip in a few light-hearted political quips; for instance, in relation to gender fluidity a character responds, “get with the programme, it’s the 1640’s.”
No review of this adaptation of Cyrano would be complete without further mention of James McAvoy. The physicality of his performance and his powerful command of the stage was a joy to watch. At times it was impossible to take your eyes off him – when he, pretending to be Christian (Eben Figueiredo), tells Roxanne (Anita Joy Uwajeh) how he feels you could have heard a pin drop. It felt like no one in the whole theatre was breathing. McAvoy has an incredible voice, that much is non-negotiable, and his manipulations of said voice were truly something else. When he talks to Roxanne as though he is Christian, he forgets for a moment about his accent and speaks to her in his own voice, but, realising his mistake, he instantly switches to Christian’s east London accent and sounds just like him. The swap was effortlessly uncanny, and very funny.
One other actor in the play deserves a notable mention: Vaneeka Dadhria. Without her unbelievable beatboxing the play would not be nearly so wonderful. Cyrano de Bergerac is both her professional and West End debut, and what an impression she has made. At the end of the play she came back on stage to perform briefly, ending the show perfectly.
Forget clever set design and bringing the play into this century, any adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac has fallen short if it’s not funny. That, however, is not something that can be said of Crimp’s adaptation. I actually ached slightly when I left. My favourite comedic moment involves De Quiche (Tom Edden) – think of a French Professor Snape – and some exceptionally quick rap.
Mind you, the play is not entirely perfect. At times Roxanne’s character felt a bit thin, what exactly Cyrano sees in her I can’t quite say. However, the small things did not detract from the overall brilliance of the play, and if the standing ovation was anything to go by, the rest of the theatre agreed.
As Ligniere (Nima Taleghani) paints on the back wall in beautiful script ‘I love words. That’s all.’ If that’s not what you come away thinking from this play, I’d be amazed.
Cyrano De Bergerac continues at the Playhouse, London until the 29th February 2020 and will be filmed for National Theatre Live on 20th February.