Deconstructing a classic with intelligence, humour and a light touch, this Melbourne Theatre Company production promises to be a highlight of Perth Festival, writes Victoria Laurie.
Cyrano, Melbourne Theatre Company, presented by Black Swan State Theatre Company
State Theatre Centre of WA, 18 February 2023
If you’re going to mess with a theatre classic, do it thoroughly and make it your own. That’s the message in Virginia Gay’s approach to Cyrano de Bergerac, 19th century novelist Edmond Rostand’s French classic tale; she has so gloriously messed with it that her upbeat Cyrano seems certain to be a major hit of this Perth Festival. One hopes it will be the first of many theatrical inventions from the multi-talented writer-actor.
Gay’s adroit take on a tale about a lovelorn man with a giant nose is fully-formed, even when the play opens with a comic trio of hired extras musing about what form exactly the play will take. This trio – Holly Austin, Zenya Carmelotti and Robin Goldsworthy – is worth the price of a theatre ticket alone. The three loll about on nondescript props on a largely empty stage in theatrical anticipation, swapping jokes and the odd musical number with the expectant audience.
We learn that the story will be constructed – and, it turns out, deconstructed – before for our very eyes. How exactly will Cyrano win over Roxanne (Tuuli Narkle), the leisure-clad love interest with a seductively nimble mind?
In Gay’s reworking, the swashbuckling, overweening male Cyrano of yesteryear is replaced – and acted – by herself. Her Cyrano is also keen for conquest, and endowed with the gift of poetic wordplay, yet she is as resigned to failure in the pursuit of love as the male version with the ugly schnoz.
Much has been written about the “gender-flipping” nature of this production, yet the success of Gay’s writing is that the verbal descriptions of Cyrano’s supersized nose – which we don’t actually see in this version – so easily translate in the viewer’s mind into a metaphor for all kinds of self-loathing, triggered by societal taboos over sex or body shape.
And then the play quickly moves on, in scene after scene of superb comic thrust and parry. Narkle’s exquisitely pert Roxanne lusts after the buff but dim-witted Christian (“Call me Yan”), played to hilarious effect by Joel Jackson. A jealous Cyrano wants nothing more than for her beloved Roxanne to be happy, and so offers to coach Yan in the language of love.
A balcony scene involves great ensemble work and comic timing as Yan and Cyrano form a wooing-cum-warring duo down below, while above Roxanne falls hopelessly in love with whoever uttered the words. The deception works, and then it doesn’t; Roxanne is no fool and confronts the schemers with a stern #MeToo-style reprimand about not being straight with her.
It’s a form of revisionism done with intelligence, humour and a light touch. As Gay herself observes, “if you have a feminist and a queer woman writing this story, and writing about and for a Roxanne who is gaslit, catfished and manipulated by another woman, then it becomes very difficult”.
Gay manages to prod a few old social mores without upending the show. This critic is grateful, after sitting grimly through a different show that lacked even a scintilla of such reflection. The aptly titled Cruel Intentions was allegedly a “modern retelling” of an 18th century French classic. Yet the rape of an innocent convent girl had been “updated” to depict a modern schoolgirl being comically – yet criminally – violated by the show’s hubristic hero.
Direction by Sarah Goodes is as assured as Gay’s writing, as is musical direction by Xani Kolac. But the star of the show is Gay, whose TV credits alone include All Saints, Winners & Losers, and Savage River. Her proud Cyrano struts around imperiously, yet visibly flinches under Roxanne’s casual touch and clearly feels the pain of rejection.
Gay has done a sharp u-turn in the way she ends the play, after rejecting Cyrano’s bleak battlefield death in the original story. The closing scene is as colourful and giddy as the silliest romcom, with the cast again bursting into song. Quite a departure, but perhaps it’s a tonic for modern times that this Cyrano ends in blissful consummation.
Pictured top: Viriginia Gay and Zenya Carmelotti in ‘Cyrano’. Photo: Daniel J Grant
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