The story of Cyrano de Bergerac has been told time and time again, from the original 1897 play by French poet Edmond Rostand, through to countless modern adaptations – the literal (2021’s Cyrano, starring Peter Dinklage in the lead role) and the loose (the 1996 romcom The Truth About Cats and Dogs; Netflix’s absolute stinker of a 2018 teen comedy Sierra Burgess is a Loser). It’s a timeless tale: self-conscious guy feels as if he’s not good or hot enough for his crush, so he ventriloquises someone else to win her over. A completely normal thing to do – what could possibly go wrong?
Melbourne Theatre Company’s queered version of this classic, written by and starring the charismatic Virginia Gay (Calamity Jane), was set to premiere in 2021, but was scuppered by a snap lockdown announced just three hours before opening night. Nevertheless, she persisted; Cyrano is a bold, modern reimagining, set both on and within the stage. It manages to be meta without being annoying, celebrating the return of live performance (particularly meaningful for this production) while also quite literally constructing, and therefore deconstructing, the tropes of the story.
The stage is, well, a stage: Elizabeth Gadsby and Jo Briscoe’s simple set design situates the action in the back of a theatre. This iteration of Cyrano is built brick by brick in real time by a Greek chorus of unnamed supporting characters (Holly Austin, Milo Hartill and Robin Goldsworthy), who assist Gay’s Cyrano in deciding how she wants to realise her own version of events. It’s incredibly self-aware as the characters point out the flaws and biases of past realisations, and think about what a Cyrano for modern times might, or should, look like. With a frequent breaking of the fourth wall, the audience is always clued in as to what’s going on, invited to participate in this reconstruction.
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In the original play, Cyrano’s perceived shortcoming is his large, unsightly nose. Gay’s gender-flipped remake includes no such physical trait, but it’s a strange decision to keep references to it in – one monologue has her riffing madly on big nose jokes. Still, the visual absence of the schnoz means it becomes more of a metaphor for the stifling of queer desire, or of simply building an emotional wall, a refusal to let love in. (Anxious-avoidants say what?)
The object of Cyrano’s affections, Roxanne (Tuuli Narkle), has her eye on the ultimate himbo, Yan (Claude Jabbour); Yan’s body with Cyrano’s mind and wit might just be Roxanne’s perfect match. The play remains a comedy of errors but, again with Gay’s contemporary politics, more agency is given to the characters that were traditionally used as props. Viewed with a modern eye, in the age of catfishing, gaslighting and emotional abuse, Cyrano’s deception is especially troubling. A climactic, confrontational scene is perhaps a little didactic as Roxanne demands to be seen as more than a manic pixie dream girl, but it’s a point past adaptations may have overlooked. But due to the fluctuations in language and non-era-specific costuming (including athleisurewear and roller skates for Roxanne’s grand entrance), it can be confusing knowing exactly when this play is supposed to be set – it has a modern spirit, but seems to go back and forth in time.
The chorus provides comic relief throughout: Hartill gets a chance to show her stunning vocal chops, while Austin largely carries the comedy as a dopey character who experiences some surprising individual growth. Goldsworthy plays a frustratingly pompous chorus member with finesse. There’s a fairly naff ongoing bit involving food as metaphor, which culminates in baked goods being thrown at the audience. This bizarre choice is probably the production’s biggest misstep, but it does build some rapport with the crowd.
Gay’s Cyrano is more romcom than tragedy, building up to a sequence in which the protagonist devises her way to apologise, and then get the girl. The confetti and glitter-soaked finale, with its neat, bow-on-top conclusion, may irritate purists expecting a more rigid adherence to Rostand’s text. But in a world where queerness and trauma are too often still inextricably intertwined, it’s genuinely delightful to witness an ending that celebrates a hopeful beginning.
Cyrano is on at the Southbank Theatre, the Sumner, until 29 October.