Cyrano de Bergerac, National Theatre, Olivier, London

Cyrano put to the sword
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Much of that old warhorse Cyrano de Bergerac is as fake and phoney as the prosthetic proboscis that the leading actor is forced to wear in order to play the outsize-hootered hero.

A late 19th-century homage to the age of Louis Quatorze, Rostand's play is a shameless exercise in audience manipulation: you laugh a little, cry a little, and - if you're me - squirm a lot. But when the casting is right and the direction is sure, the damn thing can make you blub against your better judgement - which is fine, because one's better judgement is not always the best judge of what is therapeutic for you at a given moment.

Howard Davies's new National revival - the first in this year's admirable Travelex £10 season in the Olivier - is, alas, only calculated to make you weep tears of frustration. It's a waste of money, time and space, and of the talents of the wonderful Stephen Rea. Despite the fact that he once played Oscar Wilde very well, this actor is temperamentally best suited to the dryly comic, the deflationary, the compellingly hangdog, his Belfast cadences leaving any stray overstatement ready to curl up and die a tragicomic death. To assign him the role of Rostand's swordsman-poet, buoyed up from the depression caused by his bad looks by flighty braggadocio and poetic prestidigitation, is to ask one of nature's undercutters to pretend that he has a psychological compulsion to soar.

There's a truthfulness in Rea that almost cannot help but expose the piece as a pile of old, mildly pernicious tosh - a perception that Derek Mahon's cloth-eared, anachronism-strewn mess of a translation, with its road-accident rhymes, does nothing to offset. Rostand deals in half-truths and in full-on lies about the emotions. Feeling that he cannot be loved because of his nasal appendage (despite its advantages in oral sex: "As for the nose, I'd sooner lose my dick;/ Besides the women like it when I lick..." as Mahon puts it), Cyrano is driven to engage in the compensatory activities of, say, defeating a hundred adversaries single-handed and of enjoying the way that "Daily hostility keeps my backbone straight".

But the play is less than honest about the penalties, personal and social, that have to be paid for emotional displacement strategies and too inclined to pass them off as simply heroic. Similarly, while it is quite true that language can be a luscious turn-on in love play, you really feel like forcing Roxane (an irritating Claire Price) to watch the first act of King Lear. That gives the definitive lie to her idea that love can be measured by the hyperbolic eloquence in which it is expressed.

A Roxane today might well be into phone sex, just as a Cyrano would very likely be a hip hop artist (some of the "rhymes" in Mahon's rendering made me think that one underestimates the inventiveness of some of the approximations you get in rap). Instead of rudderless anachronism, why not go the whole hog? This 48-year-old sat in the theatre thinking: "God, it's all so middle-aged."

It's a mark of how dismal and disappointing the proceedings are that the highlight in a play that is drunk on language comes here in a spectacular fencing-academy practice session that dispenses with words and instead shows off the eloquence of the Olivier's mighty revolve (shame about the hideous Meccano climbing-frame of a set) and the beauty of the actors and their postures.

The same cannot be said for the arty mimed sequence of the soldiers being decimated on the battlefield. A year ago, the National's Henry V was adroitly cued into the moment, the invasion of France in the play mirroring that happening in Iraq. Judged on the same criteria, this Cyrano is tactless and deeply inessential.

To 24 June (020-7452 3000)

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