Review | Laura Money
It starts in a theatre!
Optimistic and uplifting, Black Swan State Theatre Company‘s Perth Festival 2023 offering, Cyrano is a play that reminds us why we tell stories. This version is more than an adaptation – it’s an homage to the enduring elements of the tale and a rejection of the bullshit tropes and ideals traditionalists hold onto when revering the classics. Virginia Gay‘s version of the famous story is adapted with nothing more than love in mind. Adapted – loosely – after Edmond Rostand, Gay turns the theatrical version of Cyrano into an introspective breakdown of theatre as a genre, bashing down the fourth wall with a sledgehammer, whilst keeping the audience absolutely riveted. It’s fast-paced, hilarious, and heartfelt theatre – a work that ensures the longevity of Cyrano by distilling its essence into a clever and sharp play.
Equally contemporary and timeless, Elizabeth Gadsby and Jo Briscoe nail the brief with their innovative set and costumes. Literally breaking down theatre, there is a stage set up complete with limelight and piano, but then it’s as if someone has torn the set in two – archways giving way to rubble and exposed brick and we are privy to ‘backstage’ with its boxes and costumes. Adding to this effect, Director Sarah Goodes keeps the actors onstage when they’re not in a scene – chilling with headphones or meditating ‘offstage’ in full view the entire time. It is only when climaxes occur and the show gets a bit too real and emotional that this fantasy world is broken and they leave the stage for real. Goodes’ direction compliments Gay’s script perfectly – everything is exposed from the beginning, there really are no secrets or big reveals. This creates a palpable tension as the deception dawns on Roxanne (Tuuli Narkle), stripping her of any agency she may have built up throughout the work.
Narkle and Gay have sublime chemistry – you ship them instantaneously. Gay’s performance as the lovesick Cyrano is so real, you see through the artifice, not just because you’re aware of it but because Gay is so sincere. When using Yan (Joel Jackson) as a prop it’s funny at first but soon descends to heartache as Roxanne chooses Yan but then speaks directly to Cyrano – claiming that Yan’s words could be said from any other person and she would love them for it. When put to the test, Roxanne is ultimately more hurt by the deception and lack of faith in her character than by honeyed words. The entire cast is phenomenal, and though Gay clearly stars, Cyrano is the epitome of an ensemble cast show. Zenya Carmellotti and Robin Goldsworthy are hilarious and heart-warming as 1 and 2 respectively. Oh yeah, they’re not named characters, just numbers but that makes their characters larger than life. When joined by the naiive 3 (Holly Austin) the intrepid trio connect over a shared love of theatre and help Gay create the story. Carmellotti’s singing voice is worth the ticket price alone, and the banter between all of them sparkles and fizzes with an eclectic energy.
Gay’s adaptation is a clever and interesting take on the classic. Why retell a story for the umpteenth time when you could devise something? Well, Gay manages to devise and revise all in one fell swoop. This Cyrano is a meta examination of theatre, storytelling, classic literature, love stories, queer stories and identities. It’s a philosophical rendering of human nature and our desire to be loved explored through the medium of theatre. By queering Cyrano, Gay turns the ‘ugliness’ of the original character – a physical attribute – and internalises ideas of othering and self-loathing. Mentioning but not having a physical prop nose (gold stars all around for that decision), keeps the ‘disfigurement’ in the back of the mind and is ultimately forgotten as the story progresses. Apart from some blisteringly funny puns (which do get awkward under Gay’s phenomenal defensive acting), I don’t believe the nose serves any purpose in this version. Cyrano fearing Roxanne will not return her love as a lesbian woman is ‘nose’ enough.
Cyrano borrows the bits it likes and unceremoniously dumps the rest – it makes for sharp and confident theatre. Removing any fighting and violence, the yucky bits like the creepy duke (it’s the twenty-first century, that part had to change) gives Gay more time to focus on Roxanne and Cyrano’s inner turmoil. Narkle begins her journey being referred to as a manic pixie dream girl – although Gay hilariously shoots this idea down – and delivers her lines with a dreamlike lilt, poetry slipping from her tongue in a way that entrances both Yan and Cyrano. Finally her character is given stage time and she uses it to deliver a fierce monologue that states in no uncertain terms that she is fully realised as a character. Gay shoots back ‘that’s because I wrote you that way’ and the look of betrayal on Narkle’s face is a stunning moment in theatre. Finally using her autonomy she leaves the stage for good in perhaps the most definitive way to win the argument. Gay has a complex and brooding nature as Cyrano. Always a figure tormented with feelings of inadequacy, Gay internalises the queer struggle of not being good enough and putting on an act, but also being fiercely proud of their identity and sexuality. It speaks to everyone’s fears of rejection and the ways we shut down rather than face embarrassment. It’s only after advice from 3 that Cyrano realises that everyone fears rejection and this spurs her on to creating a memorable and brilliantly cliché finale.
Beginning when Austin finds her voice and pulls everyone out of their narcissistic funk, the finale is like every great sitcom moment you’ve ever been touched by. Resident himbo Yan finds himself enchanted by the simplistic ways of Austin. Jackson is hilarious in this whole show – posturing and peacocking, his ability to mock himself is greatly undervalued. Cyrano’s open disdain for Yan is a new twist and I have to say, a refreshing one. Austin and Jackson prove that sometimes a leap of faith can be simple – once you remove the egos anyway. So, does Cyrano finally have a happy ending in Virginia Gay’s version? You’ll have to wait and see for yourself. Let’s just say that found family energy, enduring love that isn’t tainted by the notion that unrequited love, entitlement, and stalking are somehow literary gold, and a few kitsch special effects rip up the final pages of the original story and turn it into confetti for the celebration and triumph that is Cyrano.
You can catch all the love at the State Theatre Centre WA until 5th March 2023. TICKETS
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The Fourth Wall acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land we engage in storytelling on – the Wadjhuk people of the Noongar nation. We pay respects to their elders past, present, and emerging.