A nose for the story;Reviews;Set plays;Theatre

29th May 1998 at 01:00
CYRANO DE BERGERAC. By Edmond Rostand. Duke's Playhouse, Lancaster at Williamson Park.

A promenading Cyrano for summer. Rostand's romantic drama of love and war in 17th-century France is a highly theatrical play that opens in a theatre. But when Lancaster's repertory company takes to Williamson Park, it will be the vast theatrical statement of the ornate staircase up to the domed Ashton Memorial that provides the flourish for the opening - and closing - acts.

Cyrano (Nigel Betts) has many outstanding characteristics - poet, warrior, philosopher - as director Ewan Marshall points out. But the one point that nullifies all these in his search for love is his nose, a proboscis to rival Pinocchio's in a fit of lying.

Hence he conceals himself beneath the lovely Roxanne's (Amy Worth) balcony, feeding romantic lines to Christian (Marcello Walton), the handsome but verbally challenged Romeo to this exalted Juliet. In Lancaster, this scene of love and yearning is played out in the idyllically named "stinky pits", an intimate, cliff-encircled pond in the park, while the scene of war and glory (actually where the Gascon cadets are besieged and near-starving) occurs in the unmartial sounding "council chamber" - another open-air setting, with a sloping grass bank.

It's the toughest scene for an outdoor production - a cast of nine can hardly suggest an army in such open spaces, so the production delays the battle, concentrating on the build-up of boredom and hunger. As a gain, Marshall points out, the evening sun fading to dark should ideally capture the autumnal feel of the closing scene, where Roxanne meets the dying Cyrano 15 years after the rest of the action.

Cyrano is "a superman with a flaw", says Marshall. "When Roxanne talks to him of the man she loves, Cyrano thinks of himself. Then the moment she says her love is beautiful, he freezes. He knows it's not him - he'd never dream he could be attractive to a woman. We identify with his feelings on the principle that no one can have everything, and almost everyone has experienced unrequited love. If we have no empathy for Cyrano, the play is left with no real feeling."

Not that he wins all our interest. "Roxanne is purposeful and skilled - she can turn direction on a sixpence. When she needs Cyrano's help she doesn't mention her need until she's rebuilt their past, reminding him how close they were. But by the play's end, she's spent 15 years in a nunnery. And it's important we care when Christian dies. He may serve partly as a plot device but he's more than merely that."

Acknowledging that Ros-tand's play is melodrama, not a tragedy, Marshall also believes there has to be a balance of emotion. "It's important that the humour and the sentiment work. You have low comedy; the next minute we must be really moved by what's going on. Cyrano's not a comic figure, but Rostand has surrounded him with comedy. And we delight in him when he produces a series of nose-jokes, saying in effect, 'If you're going to mention it, let's mention it big-time'."

Timothy Ramsden June 5-July 4. For performance times and tickets, tel: 01524 66645

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