THEATRE / A production not to be sniffed at: Paul Taylor on Robert Lindsay as Cyrano de Bergerac at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

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The Independent Culture
IS IT possible, without shortening his outsize schnozzle, to give Cyrano de Bergerac a pleasing facelift? Two recent versions of Rostand's witty weepy suggest that it is. First, there was Steve Martin's delightful Roxanne, which re-imagined Cyrano as a nose-conscious present-day fire chief in Nelson, Washington. Skilfully, his adaptation managed to ease itself round two main obstacles to updating the story (the option nowadays of a nose job and the fact that such an outre conk might be considered cool rather than a disfigurement) while also neatly modernising the ethos.

The masterstroke was to give the dopey Christian-equivalent a barmaid friend to whom he could relate naturally, without needing (as he does with Roxanne) the false disguise of Cyrano's words. Since he isn't killed off but is allowed to wise up to himself, it doesn't take this heroine 14 years to wise up to the truth. So the protracted mawkishness (as well as the slight condescension) of the original was refreshingly cut down. This was the case, too, in Edwin Morgan's spirited adaptation for Communicado this summer, which stuck to the period and the plot but translated the verse in to gritty Glaswegian rhyming couplets, giving even the squelchiest bits of uplifting self-sacrifice an attractive, down-to-earth feel.

Compared with these projects, Elijah Moshinsky's extremely enjoyable revival at the Haymarket might seem a touch unadventurous, a good-looking de luxe West End affair, low on interpretation, big on atmosphere. The slow dissolve, for example, from the blinding artillery bombardment of the Gascon redoubt at the end of Act 4 to a peaceful autumnal convent 14 years later is most hauntingly achieved, with a reprise (in voice-over) of the cod way the cadets had recently introduced themselves to Roxane. This, you realise with a pang, now constitutes a roll-call of the dead, an impression reinforced by the melancholy, downward- floating red leaves.

As the Depardieu film demonstrated, however, a faithful old-fashioned swashbuckling version can still have interpretative strengths when the man behind the prosthetic proboscis is a dazzling star.

Robert Lindsay comfortably fits that bill. Wearing a nose that looks as though it has its heart set on becoming an eclair, his Cyrano makes an entry that's tres Douglas Fairbanks. Raging at the actors from the dress circle, he then abseils down from a box to wreck their theatricals. Lindsay forcefully projects the soldier-poet's thick-skinned independent- mindedness ('Spat on by scum? It's like being decorated' as John Wells's likeable, if perhaps too unshowy translation puts it) and brings a witty ferocity to the flamboyant sword- and word-play. He also gives you sharp glimpses (unmilked for pathos) of the wobbly self-esteem, the touchiness, and fear of failure behind it all. So instead of seeming just the cause of his mentality, his comic disfigurement here comes across as the symbol of it (i e, plastic surgery wouldn't necessarily cure this problem).

Part of Lindsay's appeal as an actor comes (as does Depardieu's) from the self-mocking but seductive strand of virile effeminacy he can draw on. The teasing camp of some of his moments with Gary Cady's handsome, unpatronising picture of Christian made me wish that some adaptor would turn this play in to the study of bisexuality it could so easily become (offering situations not unlike that in Shakespeare's sonnets).

As the not-so-dark lady, Stella Gonet's fine, mettlesome Roxane is the first I've seen who looks as though she could justify her billing in the play as an 'intellectual'. But the possibility that a poet's heart may not always be in his fancy words never seems to occur to Roxane, which is not exactly bright of her. Lucky she bumped in to a nice poet.

Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1 (071-930 8800).