Monday 23 December 2013

The heart is bigger than the nose: Cyrano de Bergerac

The hero of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac is one of the great comic characters of the theatre. Cyrano is a brilliant poet, romantic, swordsman, and soldier, yet on account of his inordinately big nose he believes himself unworthy of love. Though he has loved the beautiful Roxane ever since the two of them played together as children, he cannot believe that he could ever win her. Because he despises his own face, he believes himself to be despicable. And where he lacks evidence of his despicableness, he supplies the evidence by creating enemies wherever he goes. And so it is that our beleaguered hero ends up helping Christian – a good-looking and goodhearted fellow, though rather brainless and romantically challenged – to woo Roxane.

The new Sport for Jove production of Cyrano de Bergerac, which opened last week at the Bella Vista Farm in Sydney, is a triumph of comedic entertainment. Damien Ryan is a director who knows how to use his actors. In his production, nothing is wasted. There is no milling about. Every character to appear onstage is vivid and fully present. The preposterous stage-performers in the first act, the orange girl, the vexatious wife of Ragueneau, the bloke who heckles Cyrano from the audience, the starving soldiers, the giggling nuns, the gaggle of poets. All of them, even the most minor roles, are wonderfully, exhilaratingly alive – and that is to say nothing of the larger roles like the appropriately hateful De Guiche, the affable Le Bret, the spellbinding Roxane, the hilariously inarticulate Christian. The pastry chef Ragueneau is so good that in a lesser production he might have stolen the show. But this is Cyrano’s show, and nobody steals the show from Cyrano de Bergerac.

It takes an uncommon actor to cover the full range of Cyrano’s character, but Yalin Ozucelik does it with all the deceptive ease of a trapeze artist or a juggler of knives. He is every inch a Cyrano. Passionate, intellectual, violent, magnanimous, sentimental, dashing, dejected – and, in all this, charismatic and utterly lovable. By the end of the last act he has made his mark on every other character to appear on the stage. He has commanded every corner of the stage. He has commanded the heart of every last picnicking playgoer too. On the opening night he even commanded the moon, which came out from behind the clouds exactly on cue, just as Cyrano pointed and cried, “Look, the moon!” And the audience was so spellbound by the world Damien Ryan had concocted that we took this bit of miraculous staging in our stride. Though we marvelled afterwards at this lunar coincidence, at the time it seemed the most natural thing in the world for the clouds and the moon to respond to their cue. I suppose if the moon itself had answered in rhyming couplets, it would still have been Cyrano who held our attention.

Damien Ryan knows how to use his actors, and he knows how to use the stage too. Not a bit of the big outdoor space at the Bella Vista Farm was wasted: the grand spectacle of Ragueneau’s bakery, the gripping swordplay, the balcony scene (a funny and touching parody of Romeo and Juliet). Indeed one stage was not big enough for Ryan’s vision, and in the fourth act the audience was marched off to an adjacent shed where we sat on rough-hewn wooden pews and witnessed the starving soldiers under siege.

Even the final (and, let's face it, ridiculously melodramatic) act was handled with perfect tact, so that this last spectacle seemed like merely another natural expression of Cyrano’s inexhaustible personality. If it is the power of great comedy to make us laugh and cry at the same time and for the same reason, then this was great comedy.

And it is the power of great theatre to open our hearts and to make us see differently and feel differently. On the way home my wife said, “By the end of it, I even loved his nose.” That monstrous appendage, so shocking and repulsive when it first wagged its way on to the stage, was, in the course of three hours, imperceptibly transfigured into something beautiful and good and true.

Just as the beauty of Cyrano is hidden from himself and from the woman he loves, so at first it is hidden from the audience, concealed as it is behind the man’s impetuous violence, his French bad manners, and his immensely ugly nose. But by the last act we have learned to see Cyrano correctly. We love him all the more for his magnificent deformity, and we would not trade that nose for any well-sculpted face under the moon. For the secret of Cyrano is that comedy is bigger than tragedy, and the heart is bigger than the nose.

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