Magazine article The Spectator

Allergic Reaction

Magazine article The Spectator

Allergic Reaction

Article excerpt

Theatre 1

Allergic reaction

Cyrano de Bergerac

Olivier

Oleanna

Garrick

Democracy

Wyndham's

The nose has a prominent literary history - whether it's as a barometer for lies in Pinocchio, a suggestively protruding organ in the works of Rabelais, or a powerful detective of human appetites in Patrick Süskind's Perfume. And in an age of Botox-beauty and anti-wrinkle fascism, the giant-schnozzled Cyrano de Bergerac is perhaps a hero that the 21st century needs to celebrate, even if - when it comes to love - his is the honk that dare not speak its name.

So it is distressing to report that the new version of Cyrano at the National is marred by eye-watering anachronisms, and rhyme-schemes that provoke a desire to howl at the moon. The translation is by Irish writer Derek Mahon, who has been praised in the past as 'a Belfast Keats with a Popean sting'. Yet it seems that he has suffered an allergic reaction to Edmond Rostand's 19th-century classic, and the result (rhyming 'talcum powder' with 'natural odour', or quipping about 'a fast toe up the arse') is both linguistically bumpy and metaphorically irritating.

Over the past two decades, actors including Derek Jacobi, Tom Mannion, and Antony Sher have swaggered across the stage in the title role, and now it is Stephen Rea's turn to evoke the hero who wields words as dexterously as his sword. Despite the imperfect poetry, Rea grabs the heart with eyes that could make a depressed labrador look upbeat, and a Belfast voice that sings and caresses its way seductively through the tum-ti-tum cadences.

In his portrayal, it is possible to see the historical figure of Cyrano de Bergerac before Rostand gave him the Three Musketeer treatment - an anti-war rebel with a piercing intellect that satirised social pretensions and dreamed about scientific theories of the moon. Director Howard Davies has emphasised this more realistic down-to-earth Cyrano by commissioning designer William Dudley to create a vast scaffolding-set, but oppressive lighting makes it seem more like a prison of the imagination than a climbing frame for the mind.

His heroine - Claire Price's Botticelli-beautiful Roxane - has a lightning appreciation of linguistic nuance that makes her the dramatic antithesis of Carol in Oleanna. When Harold Pinter's production of David Mamet's play opened at the Royal Court in 1993, it was greeted as a sizzling dispatch from the front lines of political correctness; so the major question in 2004 is whether the drama has maintained its white heat. …

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