The purpose and power of words is explored to pitch perfect comedic effect in Cyrano, Virginia Gay’s gender-flipped reimagining of the story of Cyrano de Bergerac. Produced by the Melbourne Theatre Company and presented at Perth Festival by the Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA, Cyrano is a welcome and vibrant queer deconstruction of a classic tragic tale of love, one where the rigid confines of the pivotal characters are torn asunder by raging pop anthems, dance sequences, and unbridled lust of the mind and the body.
Virginia Gay and director Sarah Goodes know that we know the narrative of Cyrano well enough to shake it up a bit and do so by having Cyrano open with the act of defiantly smashing down the fourth wall and pulling the audience completely into the narrative of the story. For the session I attended, this shake up (unexpectedly) extended into the lobby with the start running a half hour behind schedule, leaving anticipatory patrons to mutter amongst themselves as to why there was a wait. Some mentioned the last-minute Covid-enforced cancellation that saw the Melbourne launch nixed some three-hours before curtains, others blamed the heat. When finally seated in the auditorium, the meta-nature of the play allowed for a free-flowing momentum that gave the cast the ability to ad-lib comfortably, with a joking reference to the delayed start being just one of many self-aware quips that were littered throughout the play.
The divide between major characters, Cyrano (Gay), beau-to-be Roxanne (Tuuli Narkle), hunk-without-a-brain Yan (Joel Jackson), and seasoned chorus members, 1 (Zenya Carmellotti) and 2 (Robin Goldsworthy), and the excitedly anxious 3 (Holly Austin), is clearly defined, yet by the rapturous sparkly close the defies the tragedy of the original text, that division is discarded in the name of joy and positivity. With a set dressed like a backstage of a theatre, the jubilant chorus burst onstage, noting the ‘human soup’ of the audience, and launch into the brilliance.
As 1 and 2 welcome newcomer 3 into the fold, they each note the presence of Cyrano, dressed in camouflage pants and a blue top, hair tied back. 3 buzzes across the stage, starstruck by Cyrano’s presence and magnitude, yet completely aware of the physical space that Cyrano’s larger than usual nose owns. For this production, there is no nose, reminding audiences of the intelligence that lies within Cyrano’s mind; an intelligence that is frequently diminished by her fellow characters who critique, comment, deride and joke about Cyrano’s appearance.
In an invigorating rebut to 3’s swathe of words to describe ‘the nose’, Cyrano throws an equally expansive array of labels that she has either been on the receiving end of or has thought herself about her nose. At once, this is a comedic moment, leaving the audience in stitches with the distinctly Aussie descriptives that detail the giant schnoz, but as the words become more pointed and snarkier, the emotional toll of the flourishing nature of these insults in the mind of Cyrano and her forced internalisation of the anguish they create becomes apparent, causing the audience to reconcile with what it is we’re laughing at. In this way, Gay’s script dismantles the notion we see so frequently in comment sections online where people react to criticisms about cruel comedic jokes with foolish remarks like, ‘learn how to take a joke’ or lamenting about the lack of demeaning comedic acts from the past with notions that ‘everything is so PC nowadays’.
Building from the foundation of exploring physical identity, Gay’s script then manoeuvres into exploring sexual identity. At its core, Cyrano is a love story, and Gay’s script gives fertile ground for one of the year’s most delightful and deliriously joyous love stories to play out. Part of the brilliance of this version of Cyrano is the manner that we’re encouraged to trust-fall into the embrace of the actors, letting them swoop you into an unexpected and mesmerising tale of queer love and sensibility.
As a complicated love triangle plays out, with Cyrano acting as the brains to Yan’s brawn, united in the bid for the heart of the beauty, Roxanne, a magical experience unfurls. Gay’s script initially leans into the tropes and stereotypes of these figures, with both Joel Jackson and Tuuli Narkle amplifying and playing up the ditzy Pilbara God angle and the ethereal beauty stance respectively, but as we witness how Roxanne craves Yan’s physicality and sways in motion with Cyrano’s mind, we also get to learn how Yan sees the world and is challenged by the brilliant minds around him. Both Roxanne and Cyrano are intelligent and love poking, prodding, and exploring each other’s intellect, whereas Yan sees the world differently, yearning to house an ounce of Cyrano’s mind in his own, all the while he craves the pleasure of the bodies of others.
While the mirroring of opposites between Cyrano and Yan could have been familiar and formulaic, that feeling is never experienced given how each member of the cast brings a level of themselves to the roles. While on paper, they are playing Cyrano, Yan, 3, or Roxanne, the meta-quality of Gay’s script means that they are also working against the original text. This is, ultimately, a play that refutes the need for tragedy, denounces the ‘kill your gays’ trope, and chooses love over despair, chooses hope over harrowing heartbreak. In an interview with The Guardian, Gay explains her decision behind making a play that throws away the notion that ‘queer love is impossible’ by saying, “I won’t be a part of a story that says, ‘kill your gays’. […] I don’t want a tragedy right now. We wanted to make it extremely joyful, extremely funny and filled with music. Everything that audiences have missed about live theatre.”
Due to the pandemic, I’ve considered the notion of how we romanticise tragedy and trauma in our culture, whether it be theatre, literature or on screen, and how the way we tell these stories impacts our day to day lives. This is a grander idea that is best explored outside of a review for a play like this, but I mention it because we as a society have become so deeply enamoured by tragedy that it is starting to impact the manner that our stories are being told. Some of our most heightened emotional responses come from a place of grief or emotional devastation, and inevitably, these also become some of our most memorable experiences when engaging with culture simply because they are so emotionally overwhelming. There will always be space for trauma and tragedy in the arts, but it’s with revisionist work like this iteration of Cyrano that positivity and hope is given an equal spot on the podium to stand tall.
But I can safely tell you that I haven’t experienced the level of euphoria, giddiness, joy, and, most importantly, the feeling of hope after a work of art like I did with Cyrano for the longest time.
I’m writing this a week after having experienced it, and not a day has gone by when I haven’t thought about the utter joy and bliss of the romance-filled final moments of the play. Today, I watched videos of the Sydney Mardi Gras, where thousands of bodies draped in sequins, glitter, and beautiful, proud, bright colours with grins that would power a city walked along Oxford Street. This is a community that has experienced immense tragedy and immense trauma, often at the hands of previous Australian governments. I wondered how many Cyrano’s were in that crowd, yearning to find their own Roxanne to love and cherish and hold.
I’ve been experiencing a wealth of culture at the 2023 Perth Festival, with each performance or art exhibition creating a layering effect in my mind. The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde reminded me that the delivery of how a story is told is equally as important as the story itself, while the WA Youth Theatre Company gave space for younger artists to explore their personal connection with stars in Seven Sisters, a performance piece that showcased the birth of stories in our minds, and their ability to endure thousands upon thousands of years, shifting shape as each new storyteller brings life to their existence once more as they equally bring a personal perspective to their tales. Then hearing the wealth of writers talk about how their stories came to life, whether it be by addressing personal trauma, politics, or their own queer identities through their writing, further highlighted the importance of varied storytelling. After all, we are all storytellers, and even though we may hear the same story, it’s how we interpret it and share it to someone else that it changes and morphs into something new.
The cheekiness, the positivity, and the hope of Cyrano is something that I will carry with me for a long time, but it’s also the importance of words and the power they hold that will also stick in my mind. It’s also something that I’m keenly aware of as I write this review. I am predominantly a critic. I sit in judgement of what I have seen and put forth a legion of words in the hope that someone, somewhere may read them and follow my advice. I also write this review knowing that much of what I have written will pale in comparison to the actual show itself, so I’ll leave you with this and hope that you can rush along and catch Cyrano before it closes on March 5th:
Cyrano is a distinctly Aussie retelling of a familiar tale. It is a risk taking, boundary pushing celebration of love and minds of all kinds, one that is proudly adorned in a cape of green and cold tinsel that sparkles like the midnight sky. Its tear-inducing comedy and embrace of unity is everything that I’ve missed about live theatre.
Tickets for this performance were provided by Perth Festival for an honest review.
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