Edmond Rostand’s 1897 comedy may be over a century old, but there is nothing aged about it. The lyrical sparring and mockery throughout made for a fully rousing press night at Southwark Playhouse. It seems certain that an equally warm audience response will greet the actors for the rest of the run.
I was told at school that early translations of Rostand’s French original introduced “panache” to the English language. This couldn’t be more fitting. Kathryn Hunter’s Cyrano is the embodiment of the word: full of swaggering confidence whether she is writing arresting poetry or leading the Gascon Cadets in roaring song. Hunter’s presence fills the stage even at her entrance from the tech desk above, her call upstaging everything else.
It’s a performance that is well-supported by rest of the ensemble, who are asked to multi-role again and again, pulling a whole range of accents and physicalities out of the bag. Holly Burn’s energy helps the production build early momentum, Ellie Kendrick does well to make the character of Ligniere her own, and Tamzin Griffin is particularly striking as the leery De Guiche. Pompous and bold, she plays quite the melodramatic villain.
Director Russell Bolam has imbued the production with a degree of playfulness. Guns and swords become long canes, and all duels and jousts become choreographed dances. There’s a roughness to the movements, but enough imaginative flair to more or less pass it off.
Anthony Lamble’s design is stripped back in a number of senses. The back wall is now cheap plywood, while the balcony necessary in later scenes looks like it is framed in copper girders. All other elements of staging – from battlements to church pews – are scrabbled together using four wooden crates on stage. All this is an awkward fit with such a colourful script, but the latter’s flamboyancy, helped by performances full of energy, didn’t leave me pondering this for long.
As a relic of comic brilliance, Cyrano de Bergerac is a delight to have in London theatre. It is bursting with set-piece after set-piece to keep up the laughter throughout. The relationship between Burn and Hunter is often the seat of this, making the balcony scene’s verbal and physical wrestling a highlight. One key sign of the success of the production as a whole is the cast’s ability to successfully unearth this comedy in the touching final scenes – and, when looking into Hunter’s eyes at times in the first half, vice versa.
If you usually look for theatre that has you questioning everything you thought you knew, this can seem a shallow production in some senses. But let this be your guilty pleasure. It’s a rollicking good laugh from start to finish, and for Hunter alone this is not a production to be missed. As someone who is so free-flowing in her expertise, I will not squander any opportunity to see her work in future.
Cyrano de Bergerac is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until 19 March. For more information and tickets, see the Southwark Playhouse website. Photo: Richard Lakos