Cyrano: Queer Eye Meets French Classic, Panache Explodes

Rating: 5 out of 5.

Written by Virginia Gay (after Edmond Rostand)
Directed by Sarah Goodes
Starring Virginia Gay, Tuuli Narkle, Joel Jackson, Holly Austin, Robin Goldsworthy, Zenya Carmellotti
Black Swan Theatre Company Perth until March 5, 2023

Review by Barry Healy

Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play, Cyrano de Bergerac, depicts the forlorn love of the soldier Cyrano for the virtuous, demure Roxanne. Cyrano is a firebrand, quick to take offense (especially at jibes about his large nose) who speaks rhyming couplets as he skewers people on his sword.

Stricken by insecurity about his appearance, Cyrano lends his poetic skills to an inarticulate comrade who successfully woos Roxanne, leading to the play’s famously sorrowful ending. It was through the translation of this play that the French word “panache” came into English, something that becomes a rolling joke in this version.

In this remodelling, writer/lead actor Virginia Gay strips the story down to its bare essentials and reconstructs it with a feminist, queer twist.

The production comes to the West for the Perth Festival after a successful season in Melbourne.

In keeping with Rostand’s original first act, the setting itself is as a theatre, a stage within a stage, which evolves with the action. Great use is made of a bantering, three-person chorus articulating plot movements.

For those familiar with the original French classic, there is plenty of fun with famous characters and scenes.

In this play, Cyrano’s huge nose is referenced but not represented by prosthetic make-up. Rather, it becomes an allegory for body image and Cyrano’s despair about Roxanne rejecting her because she is a woman.

In making this authorial choice regarding the famous nose, Gay says “when there’s no nose, what you see so transparently is someone who has decided that they are unworthy of love. You see their self-doubt, and their self-hate.”

Gay says this is “the story of a queer body; this is the story of a body that at some point has been made to feel and think ‘there’s something about me that is not good enough for you.’ It’s that idea of there being something about these bodies that somebody has told us won’t satisfy you, and we’ve internalised that language.”

As lead actor, playing Cyrano, Gay commands the stage as the dialogue weaves through comedy, philosophy, poetics and emotionality. The role demands loads of energy and she delivers.

Tuuli Narkle’s Roxanne is no virgin but a fully realised, contemporary woman capable of expressing her intelligence and sexuality. In this telling, Roxanne initially appears shallow, but the character is gloriously developed by Narkle in a scene where she expresses her fury at having her agency disrespected.

In Cyrano, Roxanne, far from being coy and straightlaced, passionately insists on her rights and dignity.

Joel Jackson as the handsome soldier, Yan, lusts for Roxanne, but can’t impress her without Cyrano’s help, because he is just so plain dumb. He carries the part of the empty-headed hunk hilariously.

The play ceaselessly entertains with singing, dancing, raunchy vaudevillian humour, even bags of French pasties, literally thrown at the audience. However, when genuine suffering and longing arrives, it is portrayed with masterful emotion and seriousness.

In her production notes, Virgina Gay says that Rostand’s Cyrano is a person “so corroded with self-hate” that he has cast himself as “not the love interest” and so makes terrible decisions. She says in modern terms Cyrano’s behaviour is “catfishing”.

Gay believes that “as women we were always taught life would be easier if we were prettier and thought a little less.” She says that “the queer stories that I grew up with (in a different time, thank God) were all about a lack of self-worth, and so often ended in tragedy.”

In a tragedy, she says, “you can have two perfect people, who are crushed by external forces.” However, “if you’re writing a romantic comedy, you need to have imperfect people who learn and grow through the story.”

Speaking with Red Ant after the opening performance Gay said she particularly enjoyed the acoustics of the Heath Ledger Theatre after venues in other states. “Hearing the lines connect with the back wall makes all the difference for an actor,” she said. “You know you’ve reached the entire audience.”

Connect the cast did; the opening night audience roaringly welcomed the play with a standing ovation and repeated curtain calls.

Cyrano blends humanity, imperfection, desire and personal growth into a joyful, libatory spectacle and carries it off with loads of panache.

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