Words are currency, and weapons, and instruments of transformation in Jamie Lloyd’s sleek, modern dress revival of Cyrano de Bergerac at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Working off a new adaptation by Martin Crimp that blends rap, slam poetry, and ASMR, the production puts Cyrano’s words front and center. As a result, it lives and dies on the central performance by James McAvoy. Or, more accurately, it lives and thrives on that performance, since McAvoy is titanic in the part, delivering rapid-fire dialogue and dynamic physicality in an unforgettable piece of acting.
Cyrano is a master of words. He delivers spontaneous bouts of poetry and can fell an enemy with only verbal dexterity. He’s also plagued with an enormous nose that makes him visually repulsive. In Lloyd’s production, Cyrano’s not repulsive at all. In fact, he’s pretty sexy. There’s no prosthetic nose and McAvoy, muscular in a tight t-shirt, puts the throb in heartthrob. We buy it, without reservation, because the world around him has so firmly established that he’s ugly. This Cyrano’s outward attractiveness is a physical manifestation of his intellect; it takes Cyrano’s inner beauty and shows us what it looks like on the outside.
McAvoy has an impressive command of the language. Crimp’s adaptation asks a lot of every actor, and of the audience. The language moves quickly–at first, it feels like you’re not catching it all. But McAvoy is so specific in his intention and he’s so comfortable with the text that even as it rushes by, there’s specificity and clarity in his every word. The pristine sound design by Ben and Max Ringham is also key to this. The production relies on amplification to bring the smallest sounds from McAvoy’s mouth to our ears. The Ringhams’ work makes the play feel intimate and personal.
The physicality McAvoy brings to the part is unmatched in my memory. I can’t recall another time when an actor so fully embodied his body. His every movement pulls in the air around him as if he’s modifying particles in space. The other seventeen actors feel like a tight, sealed world and McAvoy is thumping through it. He’s outside the group–intentionally. His Cyrano does not belong with these other people. There’s too much he needs to do, too much he needs to express.
Lloyd and his design team have created a world that’s not the 1640 France of Edmond Rostand’s play, but is not quite 2022 Brooklyn, either. Lloyd’s work with his collaborators Soutra Gilmour (set and costumes) and Jon Clark (lighting) captured this similarly out-of-time and somewhat alien-feeling world in their production of Harold Pinter’s Betrayal on Broadway in 2019. Where Gilmour’s minimal set and Clark’s icy blue lighting felt emotionally distancing in that production, here they feel integral to a world in which Cyrano is isolated from everyone else. As he delivers a long letter to Roxanne at the end of the first act, Cyrano is lit with that signature Clark/Lloyd shade of blue and it feels like a reflection of his longing.
If Crimp’s adaptation doesn’t fully stick its landing in the play’s final section and if Lloyd’s direction feels more concerned with being bold than with finding true connection between its characters, it’s easily forgivable. McAvoy’s performance is one for the history books and the character Crimp has written him, along with the environment Lloyd and his collaborators have created, allow that to prosper. Its successful elements so outweigh its unsuccessful elements that it’s unnecessary to spend time parsing them. This production of Cyrano de Bergerac takes the strongest of swings and it makes cracking contact.