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Edmond de Bergerac

by on 1 May 2019

Rumbustious Romance or Frenetic Farce?  Who Nose ?

Edmond de Bergerac

by Alexis Michalik, translated by Jeremy Sams

Adam Blanshay Productions at Richmond Theatre until 4th May

Review by Mark Aspen

Panache! Now this play about a play about a playwright certainly has panache, and tons more beside.

Panache as a word jumped into the English language following the popularity of Edmond Rostand’s fin de siècle verse tragi-comedy Cyrano de Bergerac, about the eponymous French playwright Cyrano de Bergerac, who died 245 years before. Alexis Michalik’s super-successful Edmond de Bergerac, about the bumpy gestation of Rostand’s play, has won five Molière Awards and been adapted for French television. Jeremy Sams’ translation keeps all the feel, the verse patterns and the hilarity of Michalik’s tour de force.

Hope you are keeping up: Edmond de Bergerac is a 2019 translation of the 2016 French play Edmond, about the writing of the 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac, about the 1619-1655 playwright Cyrano de Bergerac. Whew! Breathless? Keep up the breathlessness, for this production dissipates more energy than an explosion in a caffeine factory and it fairly buzzes with joie de vivre.

We are in the Naughty Nineties. Ooo, la, la! Robert Innes Hopkins’ design captures the Parisian life in an inspired design of mahogany arcades, trucked to swivel and swirl like a showgirl’s skirts to form theatres, cafés, nightclubs, restaurants, hotels and trains, even the proto-cinema where Lumière’s demonstration of moving pictures fails to convince the thespians of theatre’s demise.

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And how right they are. Actor-manager Constant Coquelin “the greatest theatrical figure of the age” has had a spat with the Comédie-Française around acting styles, declamation versus realism, prose versus verse, verse versus verse etc. He needs a successful show not only to feed his unquenchable appetite to perform but also to get the theatre proprietors, the rent-hungry Floury brothers, off his back. Edmond Rostand is a hitherto successful playwright, but not only looking for a new style, a style with verisimilitude, but also to feed his wife and two children. It seems to be a “marriage made in heaven”, except for one thing: Edmond has that curse of all authors (and indeed occasionally critics), writer’s block.

Nevertheless, Coquelin believes implicitly in Edmond’s ability to come up with the goods, and gets rehearsals (prematurely) underway. The problem is that the capriciousness of the actresses, the nagging doubts of the actors, the vested interests of the producers and the vanity of Coquelin all pull in different directions. Then comes along a muse, the beautiful Jeanne. The problem is that she is the love interest of his best friend, one of the actors; and, oh, his wife suspects (mistakenly) that he is having an affair.

Dear reader, you may have gathered that the plot of Edmond de Bergerac is not simple. Indeed, that is one of its joys, for it is comedy, it is tragedy, it is romance, it is satire, it is farce, it is (to use the term of one of my recent reviewing colleagues) mise en abyme.

Everything is played big in this production, and it has to be for everything is larger than life. Everybody is part of a well-oiled ensemble, apart from the titular character (for Edmond is TT), and they have to be for everything moves very quickly.

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The biggest thing of all is, of course, the historical character on which all of this is based, Cyrano de Bergerac, playwright, poet, romantic, duellist, and irrepressible optimist … and bearer of the famously impressive nose. Constant Coquelin as Cyrano in Rostand’s play built on all these traits of his personality. In turn, in today’s production, Henry Goodman takes the character of Coquelin and builds on it. With great stage presence, well-placed comic timing and accurate body language Goodman’s Coquelin is a force to be reckoned with. The Nose does not make an appearance until the moment of triumph, when it is a triumph in itself.

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Freddie Fox depicts Edmond as bemused and battered by the whirlwind of action that his creativity has unleased, who rides the whirlwind in spite of himself, trying to keep up with events. Here is a man who ends up in a brothel … to drink camomile tea! Fox pitches the impression of both perpetrator and victim of events with just the right balance, giving an empathetic character for whom we want it all to work out right.
Gina Bramhill paints a charming picture of the demure but highly capable Jeanne, as easy to feign offence at the men’s forwardness, whilst falling in love with the beautifully crafted letters ghost-written by Edmond for her beau, Léo; or with Léo’s sub-rosa declarations of love in impromptu verse, speech-shadowed from the hidden Edmond. Raised in Edmond’s imagination she subsumes the madonna persona of Cyrano’s Roxanne (and finally saves the day in this guise).

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Léo, who is played with stylish athleticism by Robin Morrissey, almost comes to grief in the R&J-lookalike balcony scene, when he falls backwards off of a very tall ladder, just one of many cleverly crafted visual gags that run randomly through this hectic show. Gags of all sorts are dropped in with impeccable timing. Many are powered by the versatile Simon Gregor who pops up as a camp wardrobe master and a nonchalant Maçonais hotel receptionist to name a few. But with the equally versatile Nick Cavaliere, Gregor makes a priceless pair, the Floury brothers, Ange and Marcel respectively, pimping proprietors of places of entertainment turned devilish theatrical angels. With their gibus opera hats, satin overcoats and spats; and their angular pose, they are directly out of a Toulouse-Lautrec lithograph. Add in harsh voices and strutting gait and Cavaliere and Gregor raise caricature to a fine art.

Deft miming also moves the plot on, Edmonds long-suffering wife Rosemonde’s housekeeping money diminishes as the months wear on, from folding notes, to coins, to a watch to pawn, as her sits at a desk waiting for inspiration. Sarah Ridgeway plays Rosemonde with great determination as her wifely attentions and attractions are ignored in favour of fugitive inspiration, although green-eyes flare when his muse is revealed.

In the incubation of the grand theatrical project which is to become Cyrano de Bergerac, one of its champions is Monsieur Honoré, notre patron of the bar that bears his name, whose heritage is from francophone Africa. His silver tongued oratory and poetic prowess give concrete support to Edmond and company, as does his constant supply of absinthe, or camomile tea as the case may be. M. Honoré feels camaraderie with Edmond both as a victim of rapacious landlords and as an outsider. The mellifluous Delroy Atkinson wears this character with an easeful lightness of touch.

EdBerg2On the antagonistic side are Maria, cast against type as Roxanne, as the insistence of the forceful Floury brothers, both of whom believe they are the father of Maria’s son, and rival playwright Georges Feydeau, famed then, as now, as France’s greatest writers of farce. Chizzi Adukolu has enormous fun with the role of the self-centred diva Maria, who carries her own fan club with her. Meanwhile David Langham makes a suitably oily Feydeau and reappears as a plethora of other cultural icons, including Maurice Ravel and Anton Tchekov.

EdBerg11Parenthesising the progress of Edmond’s work, strides the actress superstar of the era, Sarah Bernhardt, whom the historical Rostand described as “the queen of the pose”. Slightly less generous is our Edmond, who calls her “a monument no one wants to visit any more”. Josie Lawrence does however take monumental aplomb to the role of Sarah Bernhardt, and contrasts Bernhardt with a character with a different type of stage presence, Suzon. Suzon is the madame at the Floury’s brothel, who takes in hand (so to speak) Jean, the son of Coquelin, a reluctant actor who would rather be a pastry chef. Harry Kershaw as Jean has the difficult role of playing a poor actor, and as a good actor takes it on with élan, going on to play Jean as a good actor once Suzon has stiffened up (so to speak) Jean’s acting confidence.

All the excesses of La Belle Époque are deliciously stereotyped by the creative virtuosity of director Roxana Silbert and her technical designers. As a for instance, amongst many little design nuances, we have the brass scallop-shell footlights that might have been in place in a theatre of the 1890’s. Lighting designer Rick Fisher seems to have an eye for topical detail. This autumn Richmond Theatre celebrates 120 years since its first performance on 18th September 1899, and every time Sarah Bernhardt comes on stage the inscription above Frank Matcham’s proscenium arch is lit, “To Wake the Soul with Tender Strokes of Art”. (A quote from Alexander Pope who lived just across the river.)  Most of the protagonists in Edmond de Bergerac would have appreciated the reference.

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If Cyrano de Bergerac’s last words were “Draw in the ash … my panache”, Silbert’s frenetic Edmond de Bergerac draws a generous kaleidoscopic cornucopia of sheer panache.

Mark Aspen
May 2019

Photography by Graeme Braidwood

From → Drama, Reviews

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