It's not only Ben Keaton's nose that sticks out in this engaging production of Edmond Rostand's late 19th-century romance, Cyrano de Bergerac, though the energy and intelligence of his performance in the fabled title role will surely pack in audiences throughout the festive season. Pointing up the hero's humanity as well as his nifty way with words, Keaton never resorts to playing the myth rather than the man.
Not particularly large in stature, he commands the stage with the magnetic presence he has previously brought to Manchester's Royal Exchange in Harvey, Bats and Animal Crackers, demonstrating his own, fresh brand of the panache that characterises the proud Gascon swordsman-poet.
The director Greg Hersov has taken some tough decisions. The first, selecting a translation, was probably the easiest. He has wisely gone for the tight yet often extravagantly witty version made by the late Anthony Burgess (a Mancunian, appropriately). It was commissioned by the RSC in the early 1980s, when Derek Jacobi assumed the prosthetic proboscis, and was also used for the subtitles in Jean-Paul Rappeneau's film of the play starring Gérard Depardieu. But how to stand comparison with that lavish cinematic version, with its cast of 2,000, even more costumes, immense arsenal, and 40 sets and outdoor locations?
Hersov has found the solution by focusing the audience's attention directly on the text, with lines and quips ricocheting around Rae Smith's candle-lit, bare wooden floor. Whether depicting the shadowy streets of Paris, a balcony at dusk or the siege of Arras, the acting space is minimally transformed by a scattering of white rose petals or a few heaps of dung.
Against this ruggedness, the swordfight sequences glint dangerously in the flickering light. And the bareness of the stage emphasises the difference between Cyrano's manly yet chivalrous world, and the refined, phoney society inhabited by his enemies, particularly the stuffy Comte de Guiche (Jonathan Keeble). This Cyrano, on an empty space, with the audience wrapped around the action, proves as compelling as any blockbuster film.
In fact, it is the intimacy of the production, the stripping-down of unnecessary sets and props, that makes it so effective. Surely, only someone with a heart of stone could fail to have a moist eye as this dying Cyrano recites the love letter he wrote, and which Roxane, the unknowing object of his passion, has innocently given him to read. Keaton may play Cyrano with a certain nonchalance, sniffing out every ounce of comedy in the self-deprecations, but his heart is clearly as big as his nose. And his musical declamation of Burgess's verse further emphasises its mesmerising quality.
Clive Hayward turns Ragueneau the baker's rhyming recipe into a cookery demonstration with a flair that would be the envy of any TV chef. Oliver Chris makes a handsome, inarticulate Christian, the man whose desire for Roxane is played out in Cyrano's passionate letters. Roxane herself - played a little too coolly and with a slight lack of intensity by Jessica Oyelowo - certainly looks the part, assuming a quiet dignity that passes for maturity when we encounter her after a gap of some 15 years.
The verse may occasionally be swallowed, but Hersov's resourceful company shows no lack of versatility or vitality in this full-bodied interpretation. Anyone with an appetite for the gallantry of undying devotion, expressed eloquently and spiced up with gags, should follow their nose in the direction of this swashbuckling Cyrano.
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