Theatre review: Cyrano

Queering Cyrano: a loose, modernised version of Rostand's classic play.

Purists seeking a faithful adaptation of the classic 1897 play by Edmond Rostand are advised to stay clear of this iteration of Cyrano de Bergerac, a modernised, queer retelling that cleaves rather desperately to the original story of a warrior-poet whose abnormally large nose provokes self-despair and bitterness, thereby preventing him from declaring his love to Roxanne, a student of the world and his equal in wit and intellect.

Roxanne meanwhile, falls for a soldier, Christian, but though the epitome of masculine beauty, he lacks the requisite words to woo her. Together Cyrano and Christian concoct a plan: the former’s poetry is combined with the latter’s physique to charm the hapless Roxanne. In contemporary parlance, she is catfished, presented with the illusion of single man perfect in body and mind.

In this gender-flipped rendition, directed by Sarah Goodes, Cyrano is a woman (Virginia Gay) but that’s not the only major change that tinkers with the narrative. Rostand’s text is heavy with the beauty of poetry (the entire play is written in verse) and the weight of despair of a man unable to reveal his heart for fear of rejection. Save for a few moments of genuine pathos, this version prefers to cauterise the tragic, and replace it with a facile rom-com aesthetic that borders on pantomime in parts. Instead of fight scenes there are comic dance numbers and though it’s not a musical, there are fey songs scattered throughout.

Gay is the best thing in this play: as the protagonist, her wattage outshines all the other performers. She is as charismatic and magnetic as any version of Cyrano. Like the original rendition, there are references to the disfiguring nose but the decision to forgo any cumbersome prosthetic means that Cyrano’s shame here is more internal; more about the secret of her sexuality and her desire for Roxanne. It’s an inspired interpretation, but the rest of the production flails in various missteps. Gay is a better actress than she is a playwright and the dearth of a poetic sensibility in this show, the lack of verse and verve is a missed opportunity.

Set in a dark and dinghy bowels of what looks like the rehearsal room, the metafictional spin of a play within a play is clumsily wrought. The ‘chorus’, a motley crew of players, (Holly Austin, Robin Goldsworthy and Milo Hartill) assembles at the start and argue about which parts of Cyrano should be presented: the balcony scene perhaps or on the battlefields? And what about ruffs to get into the period mood of the things? But while they move in and out of the narrative, gently bickering with one another, their presence adds little except colour and window dressing to the main event, which is essentially the love triangle between Cyrano, Roxanne and Yan (apparently a cooler version of Christian).

Roxanne (Tuuli Narkle) who first makes her appearance in leopard leggings and rollerskates, tries a little too hard to convince us of her worth, telling us repeatedly that she’s a fully realised woman with agency and certainly not a manic pixie dream girl who’s there to fuel male fantasy. Yan (Claude Jabbour) meanwhile, is played for easy laughs rather than with any nuance as a none-too-bright larrikin whose feelings for Roxanne are primarily lust-driven.

Elsewhere, there are laboured metaphors about food, and at one point, baked goods in paper bags are thrown into the audience for no good reason. It doesn’t feel like there’s an overarching cohesion tying all these elements together; it’s a scrappy, patchwork of a production in search of meaning.

Those expecting fidelity to the original ending, may be disappointed too. Gay completely subverts expectations with a playful attempt to create a new path for the lovelorn Cyrano that does not result in loss and death. Instead, Gay instead presents us with a queer heroine who ultimately gets the girl and finds her self-worth.

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But to settle on a feel-good resolution replete with streamers and party hats is both a trite alternative and a travesty to the legacy of Rostand’s tragic hero.

Director: Sarah Goodes
Musical Director & Additional Composition: Xani Kolac
Set Concept & Design: Elizabeth Gadsby
Costume Designer & Set Design Realisation: Jo Briscoe
Lighting Designer : Paul Jackson
Sound Designer: Kelly Ryall
Associate Lighting: Designer: Tom Willis
Assistant Director: George Lazaris
Assistant Lighting Designe:  Amelia Baker
Intimacy Coordinator:  Amy Cater
Roller Skate Choreographer: Belle Hadiwidjaja
Voice & Dialect Coach:  Amy Hume
Stage Manager:  Whitney McNamara
Assistant Stage Manage:r  Zsuzsa Gaynor Mihaly
Cast: Holly Austin, Virginia Gay, Robin Goldsworthy,  Milo Hartill,  Claude Jabbour, Tuuli Narkle

Cyrano will be performed until 29 October 2022.

Thuy On is the Reviews and Literary Editor of ArtsHub and an arts journalist, critic and poet who’s written for a range of publications including The Guardian, The Saturday Paper, Sydney Review of Books, The Australian, The Age/SMH and Australian Book Review. She was the books editor of The Big issue for 8 years. Her debut, a collection of poetry called Turbulence, came out in 2020 and was released by University of Western Australia Publishing (UWAP). Her second collection, Decadence, was published in July 2022, also by UWAP. Her third book, Essence, will be published in 2025. Twitter: @thuy_on Instagram: poemsbythuy