Cyrano de Bergerac (2013)
Directed by Damien Ryan
Written by Edmond Rostand
December 13, 2013 to January 26, 2014
Winner of 3 Sydney Theatre Critic Awards including, Best Independent Production, Best Director and Best Actor.
One of the world’s most original and finely crafted romantic comedies; the tale of the beautiful Roxane and the man who would love her, but for his outrageous nose – the play that brought the word ‘panache’ into the English language! A new adaptation of the French masterpiece, Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac, written and directed by Damien Ryan, and starring Yalin Ozucelik, Scott Sheridan and Lizzie Schebesta.
Written and premiered in 1897, this play’s atmosphere of theatricality and Edmond Rostand’s conviction to entertain an audience is exhilarating, hence its ongoing popularity.
Cyrano is relevant now for the same reasons Shakespeare is – its ideas and concerns are simply and profoundly human – what does individualism mean and how do we protect and serve our personal vision of the world and its morality without compromise? How do we remain faithful to what we believe in? What is love and what happens to love when we get past its clichés and false ideals? How does self-esteem define us all our lives? What is beauty? What drives male aggression? What is courage? And for Rostand, it was a passionate plea for a France that he felt was losing its soul, its romance and its creativity to return to a more enlightened, brave and individual sense of its identity – its panache.
Rostand was hurt into writing this play by losing faith in the country he lived in. 1897 would retrospectively become the early to mid-period of the ‘la Belle Epoque’ – the ‘beautiful era’ – however, as with any apparently ‘golden age’, it did not necessarily feel that way to the struggling artists at its centre, who were as condemned as they were celebrated for their revolutionary artistic visions. For Rostand, France (and Paris particularly) was becoming a petty political and economic slave to the ideals of others, politically corrupt, cruel, in danger of losing its cultural sense of leadership and idealism, and forgetting its past and the lessons of memory. Cyrano is France – fighting to keep its plume in the air. The play is about so much more than love, despite being one of the great love stories in theatre history. It has a powerful and contagious philosophy of living up to ones principles, of courage, and of selfless sacrifice.
My mother found it hard to look at me. My sister…could only stare. I was never called son, or brother. Except by you. I knew a woman could never love me, but you gave me friendship. Without you, I would not, I could not, have known the joy, the inestimable privilege of a woman’s company.
At the centre of that philosophy though is individualism, the defining theme of the whole ‘realist’ movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, coinciding exactly with Rostand writing Cyrano. He (like Ibsen, Chekhov and Shaw at that same artistic moment), wanted to explore the central concept of a powerful individual spirit crushed by an irreconcilable sense of being different to the world around him or her, an inability to find a way to live satisfactory to one’s of sense of right and wrong, or commensurate to one’s philosophy of self-expression (like Hedda Gabler, Miss Julie, like Chekhov’s heroes and Nora from Doll’s House). But Rostand wanted to explore that same defining idea through a play that goes well beyond the strict bounds of ‘Realism’. Cyrano de Bergerac is mythical in its size and scale - part 19th Century pictorialism; part fairytale; part melodrama; part Shakespearean epic (ie. a story of poetic justice told through poetry with a Hamlet-like hero – unhappy, brilliant, lost, disillusioned, angry, bitter, intellectual, daring, rash and self-loathing); and certainly, part Realist, with its deep psychological motivations, it’s complex ideals and the withholding of an enormous life-changing secret by the central character.
It is also making a powerful point about the whole genre of romance and its failure in the real world. Cyrano and Christian, only together, make the perfect man, attractive and brilliant, sensitive and strong, physically sensual and intellectual powerful, full of blood and full of tears, as the symbol of the ‘last letter’ embodies in Act 5. It takes two of them to be a great romantic hero and we watch a woman’s futile search for that hero somewhere between them. It is filled with symmetries to Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, but this time, very wittily, there are two Romeo’s beneath Juliet’s balcony. It has wonderful things to say about the value of poetry to express things that cannot be easily expressed, emotional things, real things. But it also asks us how far poetry can really go in describing the deepest human feelings.
What scares you is the thought of being alone. With her - just her and you, under the moon, Under her roof, her spell... under her covers... Don’t fear. I’ll be beside you. Two blood brothers.
I’m not sure how things go in Gascony. In Touraine, three is a crowd, two’s company!
Cyrano and Roxane provide the pivotal relationship - the overarching story is of them unknowingly remaining faithful to each other all their lives, neither ever experiencing sex or sensual pleasure with anyone, living in complete adoration of each other without mutually realizing it until it is too late. In that sense the play is like a Greek myth, but with a deliriously funny core. It has been a joy to adapt it and to play with this wonderful group of actors, lead by the brilliant Yalin Ozucelik, an actor with a soul Cyrano himself would have admired! We hope our play inspires you to live and love more fully, to take chances and to avoid plastic surgery, you don’t need it.
You see it, but you’ll never have this plume, It soars above the battle’s mud and ash, It stays with me, one thing…
ROXANE: (kissing him)…this!
CYRANO: MY PANACHE!
This new adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac is dedicated to Sean O’Shea, whose years of extraordinary performances inspired its composition.
Rostand’s original is in ‘alexandrine’ 12 syllable rhyming verse. I have used rhyming and blank verse in iambic pentameter (10 syllable lines), along with some prose. I have sought to serve Rostand’s intentions at every point of structure, poetic tone, meaning and intention and am indebted to the many fine translations produced in the past 116 years. This is however, a new text and I am equally indebted to the cast and creative team for their input and guidance.
The only significant departure we have made is from Rostand’s intended setting – of Paris in 1640 under Louis XIII – the era of the real ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’. Rostand’s is a swashbuckling caped crusader in the musketeer vein. We have brought the era forward for several reasons, some interpretive, some purely practical. The latter – it is simply impossible for an independent Australian theatre company to afford to effectively costume the play in keeping with the excess required of Paris 1640. Even fully funded companies performing this play around the world have often achieved what I’ve felt is merely a cartoonish musketeer image, a slightly hackneyed iconography that has become overly familiar and distanced from the complex humanity the play offers.
We have brought the setting forward 300 years to the “Belle Epoque” in which Rostand wrote it. Why? It still offers a powerful experience of transportive difference to a place elevated by the connotations of our imaginations, yet recognizable; and, while still a huge challenge, more achievable in financial terms. Anna Gardiner has worked exceptionally hard to execute it. It is also in keeping with the plays heightened vision of fashion, art, style, letter writing, ‘Frenchness’, grand pictorial theatre and the brutal onset of catastrophic war. I wanted Cyrano to be a soldier in the truest sense, not a cartoonish nose in a long cape, but a military poet, still a swordsman, and defined as an individual against the landscape of an epic and encroaching conflict - WW1. And the play’s links to WW1 are remarkable – Cyrano de Bergerac was described at the time as “the play that got us through the war”. It was performed many times across France during the conflict, literally to ignite national pride and inspire a beleaguered people. The play’s 4th Act depicts the savage Seige of Arras, fought in 1640. It was hugely significant to the French people that that very same patch of ground in Arras was again the scene of a brutal siege and battle in WW1, and Rostand’s Cyrano was conjured many times in literature and culture of the period to define that effort.
The ‘precieuses’ of 1640, of which the ‘real’ Roxane was a member, were groups of remarkable women demanding the right to education and literacy, determined to live for poetry, art, linguistic decadence and the right for women to meet in private as men could. They bear some striking resemblances to the forward thinking suffragette movement of the early 20th century. And finally, this play leaps two decades forward for its closing act. There is seldom any significant shift in the costume imagery between productions set 1640 – 1655. Moving from around 1913 where we pick up the action, into the 1930s brings a wonderful and clear sense of change and the passage of time to the plays’ journey.
As noted above, Rostand was using a bygone era to allegorise his own period and its flaws, hopes and concerns. We, in 2013, have stepped back 100 years exactly, to consider the play through the perspective of Rostand’s personal world, which would come to be considered the definitive epoch of French achievement and panache, in no small part due to his own magnificent play, before the irrevocable destruction and loss of innocence brought by the horrors of the 20th Century.
THE REAL CYRANO OF HISTORY
Born in Paris, in 1619, the son of a lawyer, he moved just outside the city to the small fief of Bergerac with his family aged 3. He bore no real relation to the town of Bergerac in Gascony, on the Dordogne, though the town sells his bignosed postcard to this day! He indeed had a largish nose, mocked and adored by his friends, but nothing like Rostand’s symbolic exaggeration. Cyrano met his lifelong friend, Henri Le Bret as a young student. Le Bret would posthumously publish Cyrano’s poetry and works in 1657, a final act of love to his best friend.
Cyrano was a fearsome and quarrelsome soldier, often given to duelling, and joined Carbon de Castel Jaloux’s company of Guards for the Thirty Years’ War. He was wounded at Arras and retired to studies and writing in 1641. Le Bret wrote that Cyrano had always been ‘distant with women’, while other unfriendly poets labelled him a homosexual and a ‘libertin’ (from it’s original meaning, not purely as a pleasure seeker but a philosophical position devoted to Epicureanism, Atheism and ‘decadent’ or wild poetry). While his life was impoverished and dissolute, his writing was witty, elegant and literary but too full of invective to bring him popularity - although Moliere stole scenes from his play La Pendant Joue. Cyrano’s great work, the tragedy La Mort d’Agrippine, was staged but taken off as it caused a scandal. He died in 1655 when a wooden beam fell from a window onto his head as he entered his patron’s house. He was just 35 years old, unlike Rostand’s play, which lengthens his mortal coil.
‘Roxane’ and Christian have historical counterparts too – Madeleine Robineau, a distant cousin of Cyrano, married Christophe de Neuvillette, who died at Arras, and Madeleine lived out her days at a convent in Paris. Rostand’s version of her however is an amalgam with Marie Robineau, a precieuse who took the nickname ‘Roxane’ as a disguise for their secret meetings, after the name of the woman who stole the heart of Alexander the Great.
Other figures are drawn from history too. Rageneau was a baker and poet who would later work for Moliere. Lignere was a drunken poet who actually did involve Cyrano in a fight against almost impossible odds. Cyrano’s most significant work, Etats et Empires de la Lune, published in 1657 by Le Bret, is used by Rostand in Act 3 as Cyrano fools De Guiche with his voyage to the moon. It is considered the first genuine piece of science fiction in human history – Cyrano wrote the tale of a man who journeys to, and directly through, the moon and the sun – a fitting metaphor for a life of futile but transcendent aspiration. Cyrano’s work is now recognized because of Rostand, and ironically, he is now a more highly regarded author than Rostand himself!
Born to a wealthy family on April Fools Day 1868, Rostand studied law and after a failed publication of poetry, turned to the stage in 1894, with a witty rewrite of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet called Les Romanesques, which later became a long running musical. His obsession with R&J would inspire Cyrano de Bergerac too in 1897, his fourth play and first success. And success is an understatement, it was an overwhelming triumph, one of the most immediate theatrical hits in history, playing over 1000 consecutive performances with the great Coquelin in the role, and extolling Rostand as the new Victor Hugo. He would go on to write two unsuccessful vehicles for the great Sarah Bernhardt and his romantic style did not survive against the fierce, stern and less facile movement of Naturalism sweeping Europe. But Cyrano has remained among the most popular plays of all time. Rostand died of pneumonia, aged 50, after catching a cold during the Armistice celebrations in 1918.
There are more things in heaven and earth, Rageneau, than are dreamt of in your filos. The rest is…something, I forget. Here lies Hercule Savinien De Cyrano de Bergerac. Who tried everything, and did nothing. Sinking without a trace. No, no – to the moon!
"For any company, a Cyrano as engaging as this would be a considerable achievement. For an independent company, it's little short of magnificent. Highly recommended."
"Yalin Ozucelik is outstanding as the swash-buckling Cyrano, capturing his cockiness, volubility and wit as well as his aching heart and self-loathing. At times he is like a verbal tornado. Lizzie Schebesta is a lovely, feisty Roxanne and Scott Sheridan is very funny as Christian"
Barry French | Montfleury / Carbon de Castel Jaloux / Chef / 4th Poet
Bernadette Ryan | Lise / Jodelet
Christopher Stalley | Pickpocket / Actor / Chef / Poet / 4th Cadet
Christopher Tomkinson | Bellerose / Musketeer / Capuchin / Sentinel Cadet
Damien Strouthos | Lignere / Chef / Poet / 2nd Cadet
Francesca Savige | A Marquise / Chef / 3rd Poet / Sister Claire
James Lugton | Comte De Guiche / Actor / Chef / Poet
John Turnbull | Rageneau
Julian Garner | Le Bret / Chef / 2nd Poet
Lizzie Schebesta | Madeleine Robin (Roxane)
Madeleine Jones | Orange-Girl / Chef / Poet / Page / Sister Martha
Robert Jago | Patron / An Actor / 1st Poet / 3rd Cadet
Scott Sheridan | Christian de Neuvillette / Chef / Poet
Tim Walter | Valvert / Actor / Chef / Poet / 1st Cadet
Vanessa Downing | Duenna / Mother Marguerite
Yalin Ozucelik | Cyrano de Bergerac
Anna Gardiner | Costume Designer
Barry French | Set Design
Damien Ryan | Director
David Stalley | Sound Design / Videography
Jeremy Page | Technical Manager/Operator
Jess Penny | Production Manager
Katherine Holmes | Assistant Stage Manager
Lauren Holmes | Assistant Stage Manager
Lija Simpson | Stage Manager
Rebecca Poulter | Assistant Stage Manager
Scott Witt | Fight Director / Movement
Toby Knyvett | Lighting Designer