EDMOND DE BERGERAC AT THE ARTS THEATRE
Art sometimes follows life in a strange way. On the night when everyone mourned the fire that has reduced Notre Dame to a shell, the new play ‘Edmond de Bergerac’ opened in Cambridge with what felt like a shock.
“Bonjour”, boomed the host, Delroy Atkinson, as he struck the stage with his staff three times in the centuries’ old French fashion to mark the start of a piece of theatre. “We are in Paris”. Clearly the show had to go on. Great then, that the production conveyed all the wit, the flamboyance and most of all the humour of the Gallic tradition .The sassy translation of Alexis Michalik’s fast moving play conveys how much French people adore ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’ and Edmund Rostand, its Gaston author. Both have a place akin to Shakespeare in England. Rostand and his phenomenal hit shot to the top of the most-loved list in France in 1898 and have more or less stayed there every since. Rostand’s birthplace in the Basque country is revered , the play is never out of production and the part of Cyrano, is a choice role for almost every actor who wants a challenge. I still recall Anthony Cher who took the part at the Cambridge Arts twenty years ago in a memorable three hour marathon that had the audience in tears. Opera and film have followed. Cyrano is a legend all of its own.
This play though takes another slant on the genesis of the play.
Edmond Rostand, played with charming style by a delightful Freddie Fox (his performance alone is worth the ticket) is struggling to make ends meet in a cramped Parisian flat . “ Why are we living in the most expensive city in the world?” he asks “Because it’s the most beautiful’ replies his loving wife, Rosamunde mother of his two small children. But theatre life is not going well. Sarah Bernhardt stars in his latest offering. Josie Lawrence plays her with all the assurance of a over-blown superstar . In vain. It’s another flop. Yet veteran actor Constant Coquelin,’ ‘call me Cocky’ believes in the young poet/playwright and commissions him to write a piece that will keep his own 1000- seater theatre afloat. Desperately in search of a theme for a play to write in two weeks flat, Rostand reaches out to the dashing gallantry of France’s heroic age, the era of the Three Musketeers, and lights on the tale of a famous man of learning, a swordsman and war hero, who excels in the art of badinage and witty repartee. Cyrano de Bergerac had one drawback – his nose was enormous, disfiguring , repellent and he developed his rapier like wit – and his rapier – as a counter to the scorn of his fellow aristocrats. Naturally theatre manager Coquelin has his eye on this leading role. Henry Goodman walks a wonderfully skillful line in this part – between a Lawrence Olivier gravitas – and sheer farce. It’s a tricky act to pull off but it lands the entire play in a great place between the tragedy of Cyrano and the high jinx of fin de siècle Parisian theatre life.
The author lets rip with the bawdy fun, cross-dressing can-can dancers, bordello shenanigans – and the perilous finances – of the time. Rostand dashes about polishing off one act after another as the deadline draws nearer and meanwhile in his own life his best friend Léo enlists him to woo his own unattainable Jeanne, a seamstress played to perfection by Gina Bramhill . Fact follows fiction as Edmond’s beautiful letters to her are too successful, and like the love story of Cyrano himself, she falls in love with him rather than the handsome Léo, a dashing blade played by Robin Morrissey.- his athletic action pieces generate many of the big laughs ( and there are loads of them) in this fabulous romp of a play. And it is so playful. Georges Feydeau the box-office busting farce author of the time stalks the action scornful of a nervouc Rostand and his new crew; there are even encounters with a gloomy Stanislavsky ( an excellent Luke Elliot) and Anton Chekov . In a play so full of delight and fun, Simon Gregor is stand-out hilarious, acting with such precision he steals the show over again as a camp Wardrobe Master, Marcel Floury, the nervous theatre director and even a beyond- brilliant Hotel Receptionist -( you have to be there!)
This play has it all. Its translator Jeremy Sams has left none of the Gallic capers behind in the switch to English and it is quite simply laughs from beginning to end.
Winner of five Molière awards in its native France this is a homage to the scintillating tradition of French theatre life. It is funny, thoughtful, true - and new. On a night when Paris meant pain, there could be no better counterpoint to the city’s loss than a cultural reminder of the exuberance- and energy -that still makes it the most admired city in the world.