By Adam Rafferty
While we were all living through the isolating awfulness of the 2020 pandemic lockdowns, Virginia Gay used the time to write a play in response to how she was feeling, choosing to adapt Edmond Rostand’s classic tale Cyrano de Bergerac. The original’s story of a lover disconnected from the object of his affections provided a guiding light for Gay to explore her own feelings of longing for human connection in the circumstances. Through this prism she transforms the title role into an exploration of queer self-doubt and yearning.
It’s almost intolerable cruelty that Melbourne’s 2021 lockdowns meant the original staging of this production was put off for 12 months, but the delay hasn’t diminished the play’s enthusiasm or positivity. In fact, this adaptation, while certainly about internalised self-loathing, is a joyful experience, filled with music, love and laughter.
Gay constructs the piece as a ‘play within a play’, having her story set in an ‘empty’ theatre, complete with crumbling, false proscenium arch, forward thrust and footlights. Elizabeth Gadsby’s charming set design shortens the vast Sumner theatre stage, bringing the back wall forward and crimping the wings, so we can see stage exits clearly. In this setting the story told by a troupe of players who pull from wardrobe racks and prop chests, stringing festoon lights across the ‘stage’ to create various scenes and locations. It works beautifully and Paul Jackson makes the most of the opportunities it affords the lighting design.
The acting troupe have a core trio named 1, 2 and 3 (Milo Hartill, Robin Goldsworthy and Holly Austin), three individual characters who help push along our hero to tell the story. Each one is as funny and appealingly charismatic as the next. They also sing beautifully when the script calls for it and Hartill in particular gives a gorgeous vocal performance.
As Cyrano the poet, Gay is the leader of this group and a volatile one at that. She’s self-deprecating and hard to please, but erudite and a raconteur. When Roxanne (Tuuli Narkle) enters the scene – a smart, sassy, sexy woman-of-the-world – Cyrano is smitten and suddenly the smooth talker loses her hard fighting edge. She’s besotted, but of course Roxanne simply enjoys her company and is blissfully unaware that Cyrano’s chat is covering a growing obsession.
In fact, Roxanne has her own crush going on over the handsome yet dim Yan (Claude Jabbour). He likes her too, but he’s a man of action, not words. He’s dumbstruck in her presence, and when he explains his predicament to Cyrano, the poet can’t help but give him advice that she herself should be taking – to profess her love for Roxanne in all its lyrical beauty.
This classic is a well-worn story loosely adapted as the plot for many a TV show and movie, from Steve Martin’s Roxanne, to The Truth About Cats and Dogs, Electric Dreams and The Ugly Truth, so it’s no spoiler to say that Cyrano’s kindly plan to help Yan attract Roxanne unintentionally backfires. The poet gets carried away and eventually uses her own truthful words of love, which sees Yan woo Roxanne into bed, and Cyrano wallowing in self-pity. But it’s the way this version of the story ends that’s quite different to the original Rostand play.
In fact, Gay only hangs onto the core threads of the original storyline, bravely cutting away almost everything that isn’t completely essential and bringing the production in at a neat 1 hour, 40 minutes. Director Sarah Goodes doesn’t add any complication either. This is a bare and unpretentious retelling that allows Gay to create a fantasy that was doubtless a comforting thought in the height of those pandemic times. It’s still a joyous and soothing experience in the theatre now, but it does lack the panache that Cyrano de Bergerac is known for. The dialogue isn’t as ornate and showy as you would expect from a story about a woman who can woo with her words alone.
Gay has long been known to command the stage with ease, and there is no exception here. The rest of the cast live up to the challenge also, giving uniformly winning performances. The music, directed by Xani Kolac brings spine-tingling warmth to the performance and overall, the experience is one of life-reaffirming happiness. So how can you not recommend that?
Images: Jeff Busby