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Cyrano de Bergerac, Harold Pinter Theatre, review: James McAvoy is phenomenal


It’s back, and it’s astonishing. The Jamie Lloyd Company’s radical reinvention of this tragic-romantic 1897 French classic, which knocked West End audiences sideways back in 2019, is all spit and wit and grit.

It delivers Martin Crimp’s agile update of Edmond Rostand’s text as slam poetry and rapid-fire rap, with James McAvoy phenomenal in the title role.

Gone are the plumed hat and comedy prosthetic conk. This is a Cyrano for the 21st century, a volatile squaddie at war with his masculinity and his sensitivity, his dysmorphic conviction that his perfectly normal nose is grotesque a symptom of our Instagram age. It’s jaw-dropping, breathtaking acting, in a staging as ugly-beautiful, tough and tender as its hero.

Soutra Gilmour’s stark set – a white room with wide steps, dotted with orange plastic chairs – has a brutal modernity, with lighting by Jon Clark that moves from harsh fluorescence to a luminous interplay of shimmer and shadow. The cast are dressed in streetwear, and the poetry is often delivered into mics, confrontations playing out like MC battles.

Crimp’s verse is jagged, glittering with plosives and expletives, and spoken with such rhythmic force that it’s almost ridiculously thrilling. The wonder of Lloyd’s production, though, is the way it balances that fierce exuberance with stillness and intensity.

Eben Figueiredo in the flawless Cyrano de Bergerac at Harold Pinter Theatre (Photo: Kate Morley PR)

This is, of course, a love story of deception and mistaken identity, in which McAvoy’s soldier-poet Cyrano, feeling unworthy of his beloved Roxane, steps aside in favour of pretty-boy cadet Christian. But Roxane is an intellectual with a passion for a well-turned phrase, and in that department tongue-tied Christian is a non-starter. So – in an agonising act of self-abnegation – Cyrano agrees to speak and write letters to Roxane on behalf of his rival.

The moment when McAvoy, shaven-headed, compact and sinewy, sheds his Scots accent to impersonate the London twang of Eben Figueiredo’s Christian and seduce the ear of Evelyn Miller’s supersmart, radiant Roxane is at first brilliantly funny, then tremblingly erotic and exquisitely moving: I have rarely sat among an audience so rapt.

But McAvoy is just as exhilarating blasting out a scathing rant against mindless consumerism or cultural mediocrity, amid electrifying movement by Kate Waters and Polly Bennett that is both muscular and balletic.

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The entire company is flawless, with stand-outs including Michele Austin as Cyrano’s friend, patissier and lit-crit fanatic Ragueneau, and Tom Edden as the predatory aristo villain De Guiche.

Ideas around power, who has it and who abuses it, run through the production, with its shrewd sideswipes at cultural appropriation, misogyny, body shaming and wealthy privilege.

Enfin, this is extraordinary: a feat of reinvention with a staggering lead performance that deserves to go down in theatre history.

To 12 March, then 18-26 March Theatre Royal Glasgow

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