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‘Tis a rock!…a peak!…a cape! A cape forsooth! ‘Tis a peninsular!

June 2, 2013 21 comments

Cyrano de Bergerac by Edmond Rostand 1897.

Cyrano de Bergerac is a historical play by Edmond Rostand, loosely based upon the real Cyrano de Bergerac. It is set in the 17th century, in France, in the musketeer’s era. Cyrano is a proud, quarrelsome soldier from Gascogne, like d’Artagnan. He’s loud, brave, and loyal to his friends. He lives upon a strong code of honour. He doesn’t like to compromise, always speaks his mind even if it will only gain him enemies. Cyrano is a poet and a swordsman; he handles words and swords with elegance and success. But Cyrano is ugly, a big nose disfigures his face. He has a complex about it and while nobody dares to mention his nose, he chooses to make fun of it. This is one of the most famous lines in the French theatre, and even if it’s long, I can’t resist the pleasure to share it with you:

Cyrano_Nez.emfCyrano is in love with Roxane and Roxane is in love with gorgeous Christian. She fell for his pretty face but she has a passion for poetry and fine lines, which was fashionable in the 17thC. She wants her lover to be witty and wax poetic. Poor Christian can’t write a line and poor Cyrano isn’t handsome enough to attract her. Roxane confides in Cyrano and tells him about her love for Christian. Both men are in the same regiment and Roxane asks Cyrano to protect Christian. Cyrano loves her enough to only want her happiness and promises to take care of Christian. Meanwhile, Cyrano discusses Roxane with Christian and offers his help with writing love letters. Cyrano is adamant that Christian can win her heart if Cyrano writes the lines and Christian delivers them. This leads to another extremely famous scene: Roxane is on a balcony and Cyrano is in the shadows, murmuring lines to Christian so that he can repeat them. Roxane notices something is wrong in Christian’s rhythm of speech and Cyrano takes over, taking the opportunity to reveal his feelings. Roxane never guessed that it wasn’t Christian speaking.

Cyrano_TorretonI have seen a surprising version of Cyrano directed by Dominique Pitoiset, starring Philippe Torreton in the role of Cyrano. The first scenes were a bit awkward. The setting looked like a psychiatric hospital, with crude white lights, white plastic furniture. The characters were dressed in sweat pants, snickers and undershirts. They looked like lunatics indeed. A juke-box coming from the 1960s in America was set along a wall and used from time to time to broadcast music. (I’d never thought I’d hear Queen along with Rostand’s verses). In the play, this is set in soldiers’ quarters. Cyrano was bald, with a mustachio and of course a big nose. Some spectators left after twenty minutes and they should have been a tiny more patient because the oddity vanished after a while and the beauty of the text just swept us along.

Cyrano_salle

Pitoiset managed to give back the power of the text, the sheer energy of the words. This play is simply beautiful, mixing irony, comedy, sentiment, war and love. The direction was innovative and even if it was sometimes offbeat because of the difference between the language and the setting, I thought it worked well. As you can read it in the quotes, the play is in alexandrins and mentions things that don’t belong to the 21thC (swords, battle of Arras…) It lasted two and a half hours and I never got bored a minute. The balcony scene I mentioned earlier was replaced by an internet scene. A huge screen went down on the scene and Christian and Cyrano were at a laptop, dialling to have an internet phone call with Roxane. It was an excellent find for two main reasons. The obvious one is that it showed how modern this scene was. Just as Roxane couldn’t know that Cyrano was prompting Christian’s answers with the darkness surrounding her balcony, she couldn’t know that there was someone else near the computer. It made me smile because when I read A Virtual Love by Andrew Blackman, which is, among other things, about impersonating someone else to conquer a woman, I thought about Cyrano, Christian and Roxane. And then I saw that I wasn’t the only one to link the anonymity of the internet with this. The other reason is that the screen showed Roxane’s face in close-up. This scene is very moving, Cyrano pours his heart out and wins her with his words. She doesn’t know she’s falling for Cyrano and not Christian. We could witness all the emotions on the face of the actress, which couldn’t have been possible without the screen. The emotion was palpable and it brought an incredible force to the moment. Brilliant idea, brilliant acting also.

Torreton is an amazing actor. He’s totally at ease on stage, you’d think he was chatting in his living room. His diction is perfect without any hesitation in the text. He never stumbles upon a word or yells when it’s unnecessary. He has the right tone at the right moment and he does justice to the beauty of Rostand’s style and to the panache of Cyrano as a character. I had already seen him in Uncle Vania by Chekov and I’d been impressed. Great performance.

If you don’t know Cyrano de Bergerac, it’s worth discovering and here is another quote to hear his wonderful prose:

Cyrano_baiserThere’s a film version with Depardieu playing Cyrano; I remember I liked it. I enjoyed the modernised version I saw and that’s something only the theatre can do. When I read a novel, although I often feel that what the novelist wrote reaches out to me across the centuries, I remain rooted in the century it was written. When I read Money by Zola, I recognise patterns that exist in my century because human traits remain the same but I still see images of the 19thC. When I watch a play that has been relocated from its century to ours, I may forget about the original century. It’s set here and now and this liberty offered to the director gives a new dimension to the text.

PS: the quotes come from the English version available on Projet Gutenberg. It was translated from the French by Gladys Thomas and Mary F. Guillemard.

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