James McAvoy is currently the hottest thing on London’s West End, playing a famously unattractive man. Tickets to Cyrano de Bergerac are in short supply thanks to the combined power of McAvoy and superstar director Jamie Lloyd. This reworked Cyrano is stripped back and refreshingly sexy.
McAvoy is the star of the show, both in billing and in presence. Opening the play seated at the rear of the stage, back to the audience, he holds the room in anticipation. Dressed in black jeans, black t-shirt and black jacket, his broad shoulders and short cropped hair give him the bearing of a soldier. As his tongue works its way around the text, with in his rich Scottish accent, he turns into a poet.
While McAvoy’s nose is perfectly natural in its proportions, his character’s famous appendage is given life through a microphone, held close to the actor’s face and pointing upwards, used when delivering verse. A few glimpses of this in silhouette are all that’s needed to conjure the required effect.
Writer Martin Crimp has, as they themselves admit, “freely adapted” Edmond Rostand’s play about a brilliant soldier and poet who seduces the woman he loves, Roxanne, for another man Christian. The prose flows like a poetry slam, lines weaving in and out – this is nineteenth century French theatre for the Hamilton era. It’s a sweet relief considering the last thing of Crimp’s I saw was the disastrous Till We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other (starring Cate Blanchett).
Jamie Lloyd is what we in Britain call a “Marmite” director. You either love his work or hate it, but if you’re a London theatregoer you can’t ignore it. His productions are a mix of bold decisions, with stark staging and he has an uncanny knack of landing major stars in eye-catching roles.
This year alone sees McAvoy as Cyrano, Tom Hiddlestone in Betrayal, Emilia Clarke in The Seagull, and Jessica Chastain in A Doll’s House. In the past he gave us a near nude Kit Harrington as Fastus, Uzo Abuda and a very un-Downton-like Laura Carmichael in The Maids and British greats from Michael Gambon and Mark Rylance to Russell Tovey and Jane Horrocks are in a year long season of plays by Harold Pinter. Not every production has been met with critical love, but audiences have flocked to the theatres, paying premium prices.
To his credit, Lloyd has never pandered to the kind of audience who would come to see a ‘celebrity’ on stage. His productions are often violent, dark and brooding affairs. His staging is always decidedly ‘theatrical’. Cyrano uses a nearly bare stage, a few plastic chairs you’d find in a school auditorium and three cabled microphones on stands (one of which snapped on the night I was in the audience, leading McAvoy to break the fourth wall saying “well, that’s the next bit fucked” – it wasn’t). The focus is on the performances.
McAvoy has a swagger to him in the role and, sure, you have to suspend disbelief when people refer to him as being hideously ugly, but you believe the emotional effect it has on the character. Anita-Joy Uwajeh’s Roxanne isn’t some foolish child, but a funny, idealistic young woman. Even when the plot demands her gullibility, Uwajeh has a twinkle in her eyes. Eben Figueiredo’s Christian is charming if dim-witted. His heavy East London accent is a brilliant counter-play to McAvoy’s seductive Scottish.
As act two takes the play from rom-com (including a nice hat-tip to the film adaptation Roxanne starring Steve Martin and Daryl Hannah) to drama, the psychological trauma of war takes hold. Cyrano and Christian’s final scenes are charged with a decidedly homoerotic edge.
Jamie Lloyd is onto a winner, and his line-up of announced projects this year are already set to rake in further kudos and cash. The thought of what he can achieve with an actress like Jessica Chastain is enough to make me throw down my credit card with glee.
By Chad Armstrong
Cyrano de Bergerac plays at London’s Playhouse Theatre till February 29, and will be broadcast worldwide via NTLive on February 20.