by Rachel Beaumont

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Half entertained, half bored to tears: Cyrano de Bergerac at the Playhouse Theatre

Cyrano de Bergerac
The Jamie Lloyd Company
Playhouse Theatre
Stalls Standing 11, £15 (usher upgraded us to seats on row D)
20 January 2020

I dithered over seeing Cyrano de Bergerac. I respect Martin Crimp, have never seen the play outside the Gerard Depardieu film, and am always drawn by a bit of star wattage. But first the promotional images, of James MacAvoy peeping moodily past his biceps, and then the stage pictures, where the abundance of black PVC brought back memories of Crimp’s not entirely happy venture When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, weren’t wholly enticing.

Having seen it I feel a similar ambivalence. If you’d caught me at the interval I would have heartily described the thing as an unqualified success, with the pace thrilling, the production values high and the incorporation of contemporary street poetry far from the cringe I expected and in fact dramatically sound and straightforwardly entertaining. The second half, however, achieved the dullness where I could only feel time must have stopped: where I knew logically the play could not continue indefinitely but where all available evidence seemed to suggest the contrary. I was so flipping bored.

I don’t know the play as I should and so can only guess that this bifurcation is present in the original, to a certain extent, and that director Jamie Lloyd and team didn’t hit on how to navigate from one side to the other. Alternatively it could be that the chirpy modernisation Lloyd and Crimp employ works for only some of the story’s arc and becomes disjunct for the crucial serious final third. And of course it could just be me: judging only from the response of the audience (a standing ovation, of course) perhaps the majority bought the production’s transition from rapid-fire wit to excruciatingly empty silences.

Suffice it to say that for me the collective decisions taken by director, translator and cast did not work in the second half: where I know I should have been feeling sad and invested I felt only a propulsive impatience for him just to die already. So what worked well in the first half? Crimp’s adaptation, as you’d expect, is extremely clever, and provides plenty to admire all on its own. The cast as an ensemble is almost uniformly excellent, rattling through Crimp’s elegance at the pace demanded but always with clear meaning, enunciation and rhythm. I remain a bit bewildered by Soutra Gilmour’s designs but they’re certainly spare enough not to get in the way.

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