The Shaw Festival remounts their hit 2019 production of Edmond Rostand’s tragi-comic classic, Cyrano de Bergerac. Translated and adapted into prose by Kate Hennig, her script abandons the formal constraints of verse to remain more faithful to the specific wording of Rostand’s text.
Set in the mid-1600s and unfolding in five acts, the play tells the story of Cyrano (Tom Rooney): a poet and provocateur, whose sword and pen are equally mighty. He swoops onto the scene with his iconic panache, picking fights with foppish clods, banishing a hammy actor from the stage and inspiring both admiration and disdain.
Most significantly, he loves Roxane (Deborah Hay), his clever and feisty cousin.
Rooney is elegant and charismatic, allowing peeks at his eventual tragedy in the vulnerable fringes of his self-assured persona. And Hay is a delightful presence, gentle yet commanding. She draws your attention even in moments of quiet deliberation, and often feels like a refreshing, crisp breeze through a scene.
Cyrano’s love for her is thwarted by the most vexing of circumstances. There is, of course, his outlandishly large nose—a fleshy wedge between him and the world. He hides the shame of it in grand, defiant gestures of flamboyant chivalry.
His situation is further complicated by the arrival of Christian (Jeff Irving), a dashing young cadet with whom Roxane has become infatuated. Through a promise made to her—to keep Christian safe in battle—Cyrano discovers in him an opportunity to express his deep feelings for her. He helps Christian woo Roxane, lending his words in a series of poetic love letters.
I couldn’t help but swoon whenever Rooney and Hay where on stage together. The passion and intelligence of their characters is palpable. The dialogue indicates their shared childhood, but you can feel the history between them regardless.
Equally touching is the strained friendship between Cyrano and Christian. Though they both love the same woman, there is no rivalry between them. Their dynamic is predominantly comedic, but the poignant moments are my favourite. When Christian is struck down in battle, Cyrano’s final, deceptively comforting words to him hit me hard.
I appreciate that the story doesn’t portray Christian as generically stupid. Though not eloquent or sophisticated, Christian is endearingly good-natured, noble and capable of insight. And Irving shows us how deeply he feels without saccharine embellishments.
A variety of colourful supporting characters help fill out the world of the story. A villainous count, a gregarious baker and his wife, and the cadet ensemble are some of the memorable inhabitants.
Julie Fox’s set conjures a sensual world of smoke, wood and fabric beneath a beautiful yet foreboding moon. The dead leaves dropping from branches in the final act, as Cyrano slowly succumbs to a head wound, is one which has stayed with me.
Kimberly Purtell’s lighting provides a warm ambiance, contrasting murky shadows with revealing light. The way characters are obscured or illuminated feels richly thematic.
Thomas Ryder Payne’s original score is dynamic and compelling. Distinctly contemporary, it has it has period resonance and adds an exhilarating quality to scene transitions.
Though serviceable, John Stead’s fight choreography is rather disappointing—lackluster swashbuckling. The maneuvers are banal and the execution stilted, with the actors never quite able to hide their hesitation.
Overall, director Chris Abraham’s staging has a very deliberate theatrical formality that intensifies and focuses the emotions of the story. It is stylish and romantic and consistently funny. And then it aims for your heart, which it breaks with precision.