A bunch of macho British soldiers have torn off their shirts and are hoisting a fellow squaddie on their shoulders. They’re all roaring. Up in the air, their favorite lad is none other than James McAvoy, roaring too, his eyes rolling wild as he crowd-surfs over his troop of rowdies.
Who’s the man we always back?
Cyrano de Bergerac!
Who can take the fucking flak?
Cyrano de Bergerac!
Who is it that the twats attack?
Cyrano de Bergerac!
Here we go
If you’ve encountered Edmond Rostand’s swashbuckling 1897 romance before — whether in the musical, or the movie of the musical, or one of its retellings, or, heck, the original play — this hype-’em-up chant might not be the Cyrano de Bergerac you remember. There certainly isn’t a rapier or a feathery hat in sight, though there are reams of verse. For Jamie Lloyd’s heart-stopping production now at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the program says that the text is a “new version” by Martin Crimp. Yes, well, in the sense that fire can be considered a “new version” of wood.
It takes nearly three hours, but this Cyrano still feels compact and almost claustrophobically compressed. It’s just so goddamn fast: Actors spit Crimp’s poetry in rap battles and spoken-word flights; the language pivots and jukes like it’s trying to get a ball down the field. And in this word-crazy scrum, a phenomenal McAvoy goes faster and fiercer than anybody. He claims he has decelerated his Glaswegian patter for American audiences so we can understand him … but I can’t believe it. Even when he sits still and silent, you can feel him hurtling along in his mind.
Apart from its obvious anachronisms (including winking comments about gender fluidity and the “male gaze”), Crimp’s plot is similar to Rostand’s. It’s 1640. Brave, brilliant, ugly Cyrano yearns for Roxane (Evelyn Miller), who has fallen in love with pretty boy Christian (Eben Figueiredo), a soldier who has just enlisted in Cyrano’s tough-talking military regiment. Their circle is full of poets like Lignière (Nima Taleghani) and café owner Ragueneau (Michele Austin), and as beatboxer Vaneeka Dadhria gives them a rhythm, they all dazzle one another with verse. It’s a community, but Cyrano is alone inside it, tormented by his unrequited love, his hatred for his own enormous nose, and a contempt for aristocrats like the loathsome de Guiche (Tom Edden). He throws himself, therefore, under life’s wheels. Fight a hundred men? He’d love to. Crawl through a battlefield to fulfill a vow? His pleasure. And, of course, there’s his bravest, stupidest choice of all: He ghostwrites Christian’s love letters to Roxane, pouring his heart into promises that another man will keep.
We’re all so familiar with Cyrano we take the nose on faith — McAvoy doesn’t wear one. But that’s not to say the actor hasn’t altered his body for the part. He has shaved his hair short and hulked out, the bunched muscles in his back fixed in the powerlifter’s permanent hunch. Under his black T-shirt, he has the high shoulders and the head-down movement of a bull. For this Cyrano, everything looks like the matador’s red cape: He charges at friends, enemies, language, and danger with the same jacked-up energy. Only once, during a brief misunderstanding with Roxane, does this thrust go upward instead of forward and down. Thinking for a moment that she loves him, he pogos in place, shuddering like a rocket on the launchpad.
The Jamie Lloyd Company’s production was the pride of London in 2019. Lloyd is, for good and ill, a stylist, fond of precise stage choreography that fixes his actors into hieroglyphic friezes: When the “curtain” (a plywood wall) flies up, the glowering company stands there, posed as if for a school picture — if every student wanted to kill you. Everything is flat and frontal. Actors, wearing what look like rehearsal clothes, are heavily miked, and they usually come forward and face the audience to deliver their lines, often not facing one another. Occasionally, the cast will explode into motion and hot violence … only for Lloyd to freeze the company into a rigid chess set again. Rhyming verse is a discipline, so Lloyd meets it with control.
Some of this hypermanagement struck me as mannered, but visually and sonically, the production is perfect. Costume and set designer Soutra Gilmour’s character touches are light but meaningful. She gives Roxane a silk bow to wear above her denim jumpsuit, and Christian’s blue windbreaker has a camouflage pattern. Gilmour’s set is also restrained but pointed: a plywood box, pale as paper, that in the second act becomes a set of stairs to nowhere. She and lighting designer Jon Clark make it starkly effective. After we’ve grown used to the shallow playing area, it feels almost like a special effect when we see how much black emptiness lies behind it. Just before the intermission, Christian and Cyrano go off to war, and as they walk off into that void, sound designers Ben and Max Ringham let us hear them murmur their farewells.
There’s a lot of darkness here, actually. The experience feels even more painful than it did three years ago. Miller as Roxane is more tremulous than the actress I saw in London, and her radiant, slightly shaking smile softens the character. Crimp is crueler to her than Rostand was; the final rapprochement scene, one full of old passions worn soft, has hardened under his hand. McAvoy, giving a performance I’ll remember for the rest of my life, has hardened, too. He and Crimp and Lloyd see Cyrano’s bargains as ones he can’t undo. “I need them,” Cyrano tells his friend Le Bret about the people he has antagonized. “I need that hate / need them to isolate / me so that I can create.” In 2019, this me-against-the-world momentum made him seem flawed but valiant; now, Cyrano seems utterly lost and destructive. There are no stars left in this production’s eyes. Loneliness has no value. Self-hatred breaks you.
The elephant in the theater is, of course, McAvoy’s beauty. It’s both a distorting and an amplifying force: The more Cyrano rages about how hideous he is, the more magnetic he gets. Crimp’s ideas, Lloyd’s production, the whole BAM Harvey Theater bends toward him — even Christian, his rival, is transfixed by his mouth. I haven’t worked it out yet, but there is something more complicated going on here than a handsome man pretending to be plain. McAvoy hasn’t used prosthetics or uglifying makeup like every other actor in the part; instead, he has tried to further perfect himself, building himself a huge yoke of muscle. What does it mean to have done that sort of work for a play about male insecurity? One of Rostand’s deeper mysteries is Cyrano’s mixture of self-punishing integrity and self-aggrandizing style — what he calls his panache. For all the play’s pages of verse, no one can quite get to the bottom of it. McAvoy proposes his own explanation of panache, but it’s not a thing he can say in words. If you go to BAM, you’ll see him perform a poem about loneliness and effort and pain that isn’t actually in Crimp’s text. It’s hard to quote it, and you can’t write it down. You’ll see it, though, I promise. His body is the pen; his body is the rhyme and meter, too.
Cyrano de Bergerac is at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.