Antony Sher has always had a nose for flamboyance and derring-do, and on that level alone he would seem a near-ideal Cyrano. But can he play the wounded poet at the unabashedly sentimental core of Edmond Rostand’s warhorse? That’s the sticking point of Gregory Doran’s roisterous Royal Shakespeare Company production of “Cyrano de Bergerac” that nonetheless doesn’t strike at the heart.
In his Tony-nominated turn in “Stanley” (far and away this actor’s greatest performance to date), Sher burrowed to the very soul of the lovesick artist Stanley Spencer. His Cyrano, by contrast, contains real “panache” — the character’s defining quality — but only the contours of pathos.
Sher was making his reputation with the RSC in “Tartuffe” (and, prior to that, as the Fool in “King Lear”) when the company presented its last “Cyrano,” with Derek Jacobi in full swaggering sail. Inheriting the part 14 years later, Sher brings to “one of the world’s prodigies” (or so Cyrano is called by his friend le Bret) a prodigal theatricality. No sooner are we immersed in the laddish, bluster-filled world of Cyrano’s beloved Gascony Cadets than Cyrano lets rip with some dizzying swordplay (the fights are staged by Malcolm Ranson).
The flip side, of course, is the Cyrano within: the ardent suitor who must watch his beloved Roxane (Alexandra Gilbreath, a demure actress with a big, blowzy laugh) shower adoration on pretty-boy Christian (a pouty Raymond Coulthard). Often, Cyrano is played as a gallant afflicted only by a larger-than-useful nose. Not here: Sher intriguingly suggests that Cyrano’s sizable beak is part of a pervasive physical discomfort that no amount of athleticism can allay. A brawny grotesque, he’s the Romantic-era equivalent of the school nerd looking on as the football hero gets the girl, all of which suggests that Sher may have steeped himself as much in the wonderful Steve Martin film “Roxanne” as in previous versions of the play onstage.
Certainly, one could ask for no better edition of the script than that supplied by Anthony Burgess (also used in the Jacobi staging), which manages, as it must, to be both muscular and fruity. Burgess knows when to ladle on the flowery language — Roxane calls Cyrano’s letters “a lyric flood from the battlefield of flame” — while equally sharply getting to the point. The story’s built-in excesses have a resident dampener in the villainous de Guiche (Ken Bones), whose assertion “That’s how the world goes” could be read as a riposte to dreamers like Cyrano.
Robert Jones’ earth-toned set, elegantly lit by Howard Harrison, looks as if it was designed for touring, which indeed it was. But director Doran and his designers communicate a vivid atmosphere of testosterone-driven bonhomie, notwithstanding a peculiar knockabout interlude early on that seems bizarrely inspired — banging kitchenware and all — by Susan Stroman’s choreography from “Crazy for You.”
Surprisingly, the evening’s most provocative performance comes from the distaff lead, Gilbreath, who transforms Roxane from a simpering soubrette into a feisty modern woman visibly angered in the last act by Cyrano’s sustained deception. While Sher gets the declamation, if not quite the descent into grief, it is Gilbreath who ends by stealing his panache.