Edmond de Bergerac
French theatre phenomenon premieres at The Birmingham Rep
Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac is a French theatre institution. No surprise then, that Alexis Michalik’s new play, which imagines the story behind the creation of Cyrano, has been a hit across the channel, clocking up 700 performances in Paris. This week saw the UK premiere of this ‘hilarious romantic comedy’ at The Birmingham Rep in a translation by Jeremy Sams.
The story of Cyrano de Bergerac – the famous long-nosed lover – is vaguely familiar to most, whether from the 1987 hit comedy ‘Roxanne’ with Steve Martin or the film with Gerard Depardieu in the title role from 1990. But it’s certainly no institution over here. It’s a gamble, therefore, to pitch a play centred around the story of a little-known French playwright to British audiences.
Director Roxana Silbert has assembled a stellar cast for the three leading roles and there is energetic, high-octane supporting work from the whole ensemble in bringing 1897 Paris to life. Freddie Fox is perfect as the struggling playwright at the centre of this farcical, hectic tale. It’s a frenetic, joyfully nuanced performance and frequently rises above what can, at times, be an overly convoluted plot.
Josie Lawrence brings the great French actress Sarah Bernhardt gloriously to life in the opening sequence as she stars in one of Rostand’s flops, but her subsequent roles leave her little room to shine. As Coquelin, the acting superstar mired in debt who commissions Rostand to write the new play which will become Cyrano de Bergerac, Henry Goodman is full of impish cheekiness. He sparkles with feverish optimism.
There are several stunning set-pieces which truly delight: a circus stunt involving a ladder in the famous balcony scene is bravely handled by Robin Morrisey’s Leo and the whole cast conjure convincing amazement when shown a moving film projection for the first time.
But somewhere along the way, it loses pace and lightness. The farcical plot twists begin to feel exhausting rather than amusing and there is simply too much stage business. The conceit of the ‘play within a play’ strains to carry the audience: there’s too much to keep track of. Chekhov and Stanislavsky pop up. George Feydeau and Maurice Ravel make appearances. Hectic comedy veers into confusing chaos as the ensemble dash frantically on and off stage with tables, chairs, costumes and wastepaper bins.
French theatre star Alexis Michalik was inspired by Tom Stoppard’s Shakespeare in Love which imagines the story behind the Bard’s penning of Romeo and Juliet. Is there a British appetite to find out more about the writer behind Cyrano de Bergerac? I’m not convinced there is but there’s some farcical fun to be had in exploring the question.
‘Edmond de Bergerac’ is running at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre until 30 March before continuing a national tour.