Written by Edmond Rostand over 100 years ago, Cyrano is a story that has been done time and time again.
There have been countless film and stage adaptations over the years, yet I have only ever seen one version of this story in the recent film adaptation released in 2021. Having never seen a stage adaptation, I was keen to check out Melbourne Theatre Company’s entry into this famous story. However, this version, written by and starring Virginia Gay, is not like the classic many have come to love. Simply titled ‘Cyrano’, Gay’s script re-imagines the original book and has created an absolute masterpiece.
After cancellations in 2021 due to Covid, with the last one occurring the night it was due to take the stage, MTC’s Cyrano has finally opened in 2022 to an eager Melbourne audience. I could feel the excitement and anticipation inside the theatre as I took my seat.
The stage looked like a production that had not yet fully bumped in. A lone piano on stage right, road cases and clothing racks scattered across the rear with a lone tall lamp standing centre stage. The lights dimmed and the crowd erupted in applause. When the lights went back up, the full cast of six were standing around the lone lamp and we were off.
Now, if you have not seen an adaptation of Cyrano before, here is a quick fire run-down: Cyrano, a poet with a physical deformity falls in love with a woman, Roxanne. However, when Roxanne catches the eye of a handsome young man, she yearns to be with him. Whilst Christian may be handsome, he doesn’t have the silver tongue that Roxanne admires. Christian and Cyrano hatch a plan to put their two desirable talents together to win her over.
It was clear right from the start that this was not going to be a simple retelling of the original. The premise of this version is centred around the rehearsal and workshopping of an unnamed stage production. An ensemble cast portrayed by, well, an ensemble cast with Milo Hartill, Robin Goldsworthy, and Holly Austin, simply known as 1, 2, and 3, respectively. They begin to setup the performance space, turning on the stage lights and discuss about how “it begins on stage”, when literally it had already begun. This point did not go unnoticed, and the proceeding banter had me in stitches. We were barely through, what would be, the first pages of the script and the production was already unashamedly self-aware.
We are then introduced to Virginia Gay as Cyrano, the wordsmith with an unsightly large nose. I was instantly captivated by her passionate delivery of her opening monologue. The subtle and not so subtle digs at Covid lockdowns and interacting with the audience about how fantastic it is to be back. It was both funny and serious at the same time and it perfectly set the tone for the whole production.
Not long after some more witty and hilarious banter between the ensemble and Cyrano, Tuuli Narkle as Roxanne literally rolls onto stage. With a disco ball spinning above and donning a pair of glittery silver roller skates, Roxanne makes a clear impression on Cyrano.
However, it is when Chris Yan, portrayed by Claude Jabbour, makes his rockstar entrance and steals the gaze of Roxanne that the love triangle kicks into gear. And when I say rockstar, I mean that literally. Flashing lights, smoke, and Wolfmother’s ‘Woman’ blaring through the speakers. Again, I was keeling over in laughter. The two entrances perfectly match the stereotypes of the two characters. Roxanne, the spirited, free flowing soul, yearning for a deep emotional connection to fuel her physical passions. And on the other hand, Yan, the military brute dressed in khakis, a tight tee and sunglasses that exudes confidence but lacks the emotional depth.
At its heart, the production is a play about unrequited love. But this version of Cyrano is so much more. Not only has the main role been gender reversed, but the production is also openly queer, complete with a gender-neutral character in 3. We also witness a stunning rendition of Yebba’s ‘My Mind’ with an out of this world vocal performance from Milo Hartill and Holly Austin on piano. Austin also plays, what I can only describe as, a banjo ukulele and dabbles on the keys at various points of the production for that extra subtle, yet dramatic effect.
Each of the three ensembles have their own clearly distinct personalities. Goldsworthy’s 2 is one of drama, a stickler for the original narrative, and always pushing Cyrano to fight. Hartill’s 1 on the other hand is calm in nature, and the voice of reason to Cyrano’s struggles. Austin’s 3 is somewhat carefree yet is still careful in her approach to certain situations. Whilst all three of them are physically real characters, they spend a lot of time hanging in the wings of the stage. Playing a dual role as metaphorical characters and different parts of Cyrano’s psyche, each as an emotion struggling for dominance as Cyrano struggles with her problems. The double meaning of each of these characters is expertly written by Gay and expertly delivered by all three performers.
Claude Jabbour as Yan is perfect. The body language and dim facial expressions were completely in tune with what I envisioned the character to be. And yet at times, I felt him to be quite endearing and loveable. Tuuli Narkle as Roxanne was equally as impressive. The excitement in her voice as she conversed with Cyrano, to the love drunk look in her eyes when she interacts with Yan, is a perfectly balanced mix of physical passion and admiration for the soul.
I have a confession to make, I have never seen Virginia Gay in a stage production before. I am not sure why it has taken me this long to see her on stage, but holy shit, WOW! Gay is undeniably the diamond amongst the already bright, glittering jewels that form this clever production. Her passionate deliverance of the poetic nature of Cyrano is a sight to behold. Her longing for Roxanne’s embrace and frustrations as they slipped further away were felt deep in my soul. Gay is also, next level, intelligently funny. Not only in her outstanding performance but also as the writer. Her unique take on this tale also feels very personal, almost as if it were a lived experience, as if her whole heart was up there on that stage. Virginia Gay’s Cyrano is a performance that will live rent free in my head for a long time to come. Absolutely stunning. Bravo!
With direction by Sarah Goods, set design by Elizabeth Gadsby, and sound and lighting by Kelly Ryall and Paul Jackson respectively, Cyrano is not your typical reincarnation. It is not afraid to laugh at itself, it tackles politics, pop culture, and gender fluidity, yet still holds a very close relationship with the beautifully crafted poetry of the original book.
For the most part, this version of Cyrano is a comedy and I spent most of the time holding in my sides and trying not to fall off the chair. I was joyfully captivated by the concept of a stage production occurring within a stage production. And the mix of physical and subconscious characters enhanced the depth and strengths of a limited cast. I also appreciated the interactions with the audience, both indirect and direct. And I feel compelled to return a second time just so I can immerse myself in the experience once more and to up my chances of getting a sweet treat from the stage.
Virginia Gay, thank-you for creating such a stunningly wholesome piece of work. Covid has given us many things over the last few years, but this eloquent masterpiece is one of the best gifts to come out of lockdown. I absolutely adored Cyrano and could not fault it one bit.
Melbourne Theatre Company and Virginia Gay’s Cyrano is performing now at the Southbank Theatre through to the 29th of October. This is one production you do not want to miss!
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Photography by Jeff Busby.