Sydney Theatre Company’s Cyrano de Bergerac wants to feel like the saddest love story in the world that still makes people laugh. It doesn’t quite get there, but what it does give us is a production that’s full of yearning love and lightness, pulled down into the heaviness of the reality where happy endings don’t actually exist.
Richard Roxburgh is our swashbuckling romantic Cyrano and he’s a dashing pirate with a heart of gold. He’s long nosed and possesses a confidence that belies his most secret insecurity: that he won’t ever be loved, and certainly not by the lovely Roxane (Eryn Jean Norvill), who is beautiful and kind and pleasingly intelligent.
No, all his pomp and circumstance doesn’t stand a chance with Roxane, he’s sure, especially when someone like Christian (Chris Ryan) is around – handsome as all get out, if lacking in things like smarts and skill. When Christian hears that Roxane wants a thinking man, he all but throws up his hands and says “Well, I’m out.” It’s only Cyrano that convinces him to stay in the game, because he’s just found a way to get his burning love off his chest: he’ll tell Christian what to say, give Roxane the words of love she so deserves, and then… Christian will get the girl…
Admittedly, it’s not the world’s best plan. It consumes Cyrano, sending him across battle lines twice daily to write letters “from Christian” to Roxane, breaking and filling up his heart simultaneously, while Christian, blissfully unaware of all the effort Cyrano is putting in, reaps the final benefits – Roxane risking her safety to see him and bring him love and well wishes at the front.
It’s such a cornerstone of our shared cultural consciousness now, this story – the guy who steps in to win over the girl through a prettier, dumber mouthpiece. It’s in Whatever It Takes, a 2000 film (the tail-end of the golden era of teen movies; Roxanne, a Steve Martin classic from 1987; The Truth About Cats and Dogs from 1996 (the middle of the golden era of the modern rom-com); and a handful or more of plays and opera directly re-telling the Cyrano story. Some have bigger noses than others, but they all have big hearts and plenty of conflict to propel along a narrative. And so it endures.
With so much Cyrano around, the timing and reason really has to be right to bring it back, and with Richard Roxburgh as the man himself, and with Andrew Upton directing his revisited 1999 adaptation (with Marion Potts) of the work, it feels like time to tell something funny, and something romantic. Upton has a way of making classic works feel immediate, and it’s largely in the way he has of re-working of a classic line, and its syncopation; he makes the world of the play feel fresh by making the dialogue feel unexpectedly off-the-cuff. Lines are often swallowed up in the Sydney Theatre space, which makes quieter and more emotional moments harder to follow, but when the lines are caught by the audience ear, they sail through the space with a smart sense of invention.
Alice Babidge’s set doesn’t quite resolve the problem of so many actors (it’s a cast of 16) and such a large space, but the expanse does pay off in the later scenes – particularly, when Roxane is alone on stage, marking the passage of time after the loss of Christian and towards the play’s inevitable (if you know the story) conclusion.
Norvill, who was so achingly good in last year’s Romeo and Juliet for STC, breathes determined life into Roxane; she refuses to be a simple object of lust for Christian and Cyrano and whoever else. Ryan as Christian might be stupid, but he’s so entertaining, with a hair toss here and a charming cluelessness there. Yalin Ozucelik as Cyrano’s friend Le Bret is refreshingly sane, a good anchor for the audience to look to, and Josh McConville gets the big laughs as the foppish De Guiche, though some might it all a little tired, no matter how much good work he makes of the part.
It feels a little too long, and the ending aims for melancholy sweetness but becomes a little too muffled to land, but Richard Roxburgh is the king of that stage and as energetic and emotionally available as any true romantic hero, and that’s a gift. He’s really one of the greatest we have.
Why Cyrano? Because Richard Roxburgh can do it, and do it well.