A World of Words

Cyrano de Bergerac by Sport for Jove at the York Theatre, Seymour Centre

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Old Vic Theatre via National Theatre Live

Damien Ryan’s adaptation of the nineteenth century play about the seventeenth century poet is such a treat for its unabashed revelling in words. Stoppard’s eternally popular work in response to the most famously wordy of plays is similar. Has Ryan been influenced by growing up with Stoppard as a model or, given that he was adapting an existing work, and that Stoppard is a well-educated sort of chap, has Stoppard been influenced by growing up with Rostand?

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was a glorious onslaught of magnificent performances. Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire leave their hearts out there on the stage, and David Haig as the player king (supported by a sublime consort of silent but expressive players) does the same with every other limb and organ. Diana Simmonds’ insightful piece, A Midsummer Night’s Dream: Not the Movie, digs into all the aspects of the experience of watching live theatre via a broadcast to cinema. All her reservations are warranted, but I will never be anything other than grateful to not miss out on these wonderful performances going on so far away. There were times when the close ups made possible by the multiple cameras used in the broadcast spoiled the sense, so important to this play, that the protagonists are always situated within a bigger picture. However, this did allow for a full appreciation of the emotional detail the actors delivered.

Yong man in black ruff sits surrounded by stage lights.

Luke Mullins doing John Barrymore (Photo credit: Manuel Harlan)

Vintage B&W headshot of John Barrymore

Not Luke Mullins

Luke Mullins is utterly Hamlet in the young John Barrymore matinee idol mould. When he was a local lad I was dying for him to get his ‘turn’ to do Hamlet, though he once told me frankly that the part didn’t interest him as much as others he hoped to try. I suspect he is having much more fun doing it this way, using only Hamlet’s lines, but imbuing them with such clear self-involvement and confidence in his own importance that it creates the perfect foil for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so painfully convinced of their inconsequentiality.

One more thing that this production and Cyrano have in common is that both are willing to be as long as they need to be, which is long, but are so engaging that it is sad when they end. Another is their joyous, open theatricality. Theatre does not need to imitate life in order to comment on life, and the commentary of life is fulsome and touching here on these stages.

It doesn’t hurt to pause and consider how overwhelmingly masculine are these created worlds. It is not just that the source material Hamlet provides has only two female characters, or that Cyrano is a soldier, it’s a whole way of placing the women as ornaments or edifices to be moved around to provide the men with things to do. In R&G all the other Hamlet characters are shadows, but the play adds no female characters of its own. In this production, thank goodness, some of the troupe of players are women, which has to be overlooked during the repeated, laboured jokes about how the boy player, ‘Alfred’, is used whenever a woman is required. In Cyrano, Lizzie Schebesta is a charming and fully realised Roxanne, and this makes it infuriating to see the men chewing their hearts out over their love for her and the eternal question of her potential love for them without ever feeling obligated to communicate with her honestly as an adult. The stories of how words are the channel for a soul forced to spill its banks are so clustered around men, a little of me is always wistful hearing them. When Shakespeare wrote, “My tongue will tell the anger of my heart / Or else my heart concealing it will break,” it was for a female character, and I would take such delight in seeing the women in plays about virtuoso speakers be more than admiring listeners.

No Director thinks through the implied meaning of their chosen setting as rigorously as Ryan, and his decision to set Cyrano in the late nineteenth century, when stumbling into a sword fight was still a risk, Bohemian ideals had been a huge influence for several decades, but were starting to crumble, and the Great War lay only a generation ahead, made every facet of the story work. Both people being blown to bits by canon fire and people caring that much about poetry feel close enough to home in this context. A surprise was that one of the most moving scenes came when Christian is closest to telling Roxanne that he is not the author of the letters that have kept her so enthralled. His need to beg her to love him for those things that we dismiss as shallow, his handsome flesh, because that is his true self, was sweetly genuine. It is a credit to the production that a piece so focused around a central character should have not a single weak link in the ensemble. The life of the event comes from all the supporting cast being so present and energised. All those large personalities (John Turnbull’s artistic baker, Julian Garner’s honourable and unappreciated Le Bret, Wendy Strehlow’s hilarious Duenna, Bernadette Ryan’s luminous actress, Andrew Johnston leaping in and out of different roles, but it is impractical to name-check all the talent here) support the whole, rather than compete. Having said that, this is certainly Cyrano’s show from first to last, and the grand duel in the first act, flashing blade and wit simultaneously, was as dazzling as a night of fireworks.

I dearly hope we are entering another phase where theatre is willing to love words. There are periods when mimicking the communication style of the everyday seems to be the only agreed upon noble goal, and phases when creating a striking visual image and expressing emotion through movement are all the fashionable theatre is interested in, but I enjoy theatre (this will come as a surprise to no one) that enjoys language. The last couple of weeks have been a treat, precisely in the manner of all the jovial comparisons made by Cyrano and his cohort between poetry and Monsieur Ragueneau’s delectable cakes.

group of people in C19th costume in blue light, with moon behind.

Cyrano de Bergarac (photo credit Philip Erbacher, via Sport for Jove website)

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