Cyrano de Bergerac @ Festival Theatre, Chichester

cast list
Joseph Fiennes, Alice Evans, Shane Attwooll, Tom Andrews, Louise Bangay, Tilly Blackwood, Joseph Chance, Jim Creighton, Julian Forsyth, Jo Herbert, Peter Hinton, Jack James, Tommy Luther, Gary Oliver, Sion Tudor Owen, Laurence Spellman, Richard Trinder, David Weston

directed by
Trevor Nunn
Edmond Rostand’s romantic tragicomedy must have stood out in 1897 as much as its eponymous hero’s protuberant proboscis.

A throwback to the early nineteenth-century historical verse dramas of Hugo and Dumas pre, the larger-than-life Cyrano de Bergerac is a far cry from the contemporaneous boulevard farces of Feydeau.

Set in 1640, with references to The Three Musketeers, Molire and Cervantes, its rhyming iambic pentameters burst with clever conceits, skilfully captured in Anthony Burgess’s classic translation for this barnstorming Trevor Nunn production.

The play, famous to most people from the film versions starring Grard Depardieu and Steve Martin (in the updated Roxanne), offers one of the great male leading roles in theatre.
And Joseph Fiennes, following in the footsteps of the likes of Ralph Richardson, Derek Jacobi, Anthony Sher and Robert Lindsay, does not disappoint as the soldier-poet whose wordplay is as deft as his fencing and as pointed as his nose.

In love with the beautiful Roxane, who has fallen for the handsome baron Christian, Cyrano expresses all his chivalrous passion by proxy as he helps the sincere but inarticulate Christian woo Roxane through his own eloquent speeches and ardent letters. The mix of humour and pathos this creates gives the work a distinctively Gallic bittersweet flavour.

The show does not really get going until Cyrano makes a dramatic entrance as a shadowy figure from the auditorium. Before then the action seems unfocused and muted, with a lot of stage business distracting the attention and the audibility not great. Nunn is of course well known as a director of big ensemble pieces (including spectacular musicals), and on the whole he marshals his 30-strong cast with aplomb on this thrust stage on which plenty of sword thrusting takes place.

The action set pieces are well done, including the duelling (with Malcolm Ranson as fight director) and the Les Misrables-like Siege of Arras barricades, while the more intimate balcony wooing scene is tenderly amusing and the final death scene is extremely moving. Sometimes the more lyrical moments are lost in boisterous showmanship and the subtle wit of the verse does not always hit its mark, but overall this big-hearted, flamboyant staging is a joy.

Robert Jones’s set designs, from Parisian theatre to Ragueneau’s pastry shop and outside Roxane’s house, and from battlefield to convent garden, are impressive, aided by Tim Mitchell lighting mood changes, while Steven Edis’s music and John Leonard’s sound add to the atmosphere.

As the romantic hero, Joseph Fiennes is a splendidly swaggering and swashbuckling Cyrano, younger and more athletic than usual, delivering his verbal putdowns with as much deadly accuracy as his swordplay. But he also conveys strongly the melancholic loneliness of a man who believes the woman he adores is unattainable keeping his secret close to his heart until it is too late.

Alice Eve plays Roxane as a high-spirited public schoolgirl, charmingly feminine but with little knowledge of herself or the world around her, as she eventually learns the difference between literary love and the real thing. Stephen Hagan does well in the thankless role of the slow-witted Christian, managing to suggest a virile self-respect which transcends being Cyrano’s mouthpiece, and Scott Handy shows there is indeed some true nobility in the haughty machinations of Le Comte de Guiche’s love for Roxane.

He may have been writing out of his time, but thanks to Rostand, the age of chivalry will be revived each time Cyrano de Bergerac is performed.

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