Theatre: Sher's Cyrano is a winner by a nose

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Everyone can agree that the one aspect of the RSC's new production of Cyrano de Bergerac that is entirely unmissable is the nose. A large, ruddy triangular affair, scarred with lines, it flies out from between Antony Sher's gobstopper blue eyes - and away from his dark, receding hairline - with the authority of a cathedral buttress. Not since Pinocchio was caught telling fibs has there been a comparable ratio of nasal length to human stature. You can judge how hard Sher works - and in this stormy and commandingly accomplished performance he works like a dynamo - by the beads of sweat that slide down the bridge of this long, lean monument. If you compare the bulbous, rustic hulk of Gerard Depardieu in Jean-Paul Rappenau's sumptuous 1990 film to the pointed, crouching figure of Sher, you realise that - switching from one, Gallic adventurer to another - Sher has become Asterix to Depardieu's Obelix.

A wonderful play (within its own terms), Cyrano proves that the best way to criticise one work of art is to write another. Edmond Rostand was so revolted by the downbeat realism and naturalism of Ibsen and Zola (all the rage in the 1890s) that he wrote an upbeat celebration of love, poetry and patisseries. It endorses the virtues of "panache" with the insistence of a perfume commercial. Any production stands or falls by whether it achieves that. Gregory Doran's genuinely entertaining Cyrano - which uses the Anthony Burgess version first commissioned for the RSC by Terry Hands - does so when its focus is as narrow as Cyrano's nose.

There's a stirring duel (fights: Malcolm Ransom) when Sher, who wields a sword with as much ease as he wields a new nose, composes a poem as he fights with his rival. It comes over like a 17th-century version of Whose Line is it Anyway? In the balcony scene, when Sher woos the beautiful Roxane (Alexandra Gilbreath) on behalf of the beautiful - if dull - Christian (Raymond Coulthard), Sher handles superbly the interplay of love and respect as he wins for someone else what will be unattainable for him. In the convent scene, when Sher reads to Gilbreath, she realises - in a moment of speechless lucidity - that it was Cyrano, and not Christian who wrote all the letters. As he demonstrated in last year's Henry VIII, Doran has expensive taste when it comes to costumes. But when it comes to group scenes he settles for something off the peg. A mere flurry of activity around the Swan does not create a Paris theatre of the l640s or the seige of Arras. The cast work as hard as Sher with startled grimaces, character walks and bits of business. But atmosphere depends on stringent logic. When the fops come on their costumes compete in extravagance with their tiresome "fop" acting. Sher's band of Gascon soldiers buddy around together in synthetic bouts of stamping, clapping and back-slapping that suggest long afternoons in the rehearsal room. The stunts, too, unfold with the lugubrious air of a slow-motion replay.

Coulthard has the right pretty boy looks and gentle comic touch. His Christian, though, could be more desperately in love. Sher's strong performance is only flawed by the sense that he is setting out on a journey that he has already mapped out with extreme care. In contrast, Alexandra Gilbreath as Roxane simply exists on stage as a vibrant emotional presence. Her delicate coquettish manner changes in the final act to a watchful sternness that absorbs news on the inside not the out. For me, it was neither the scale of the nose, nor the scale of Sher's performance but Gilbreath's quicksilver talent that was unmissable.

A quick rule of thumb about modern Shakespeare productions is that the closer they get to a world with which we are familiar the less accessible or relevant they become. On the main stage at Stratford, Ron Daniels directs a 20th-century version of Henry V that has the young king - still quaintly called "my liege" studying footage of the First World War on a portable screen. He dresses as a modern soldier and goes to war camouflaged in battle fatigues. Camouflage is a little superfluous in this instance as the soldier behind him waves a large Royal flag. At the siege of Harfleur, Henry sits on a box in front of the town, and addresses the beleaguered inhabitants in iambic pentameters through a small PA system. This Henry may mimic the look and manner of the modern soldier, but the familiar grunts, jargon and monosyllables are exchanged for something richly Elizabethan ("I will not leave the half-achieved Harfleur/Till in her ashes she lie buried"). It couldn't be odder.

To his credit, the talented Michael Sheen is a quick-minded, athletic and sensitive Henry, who conveys urgency (a little too often) by running his hands through his tousled mop of curly hair and clasping them behind his head. His vocal range isn't quite wide enough for the amount of shouting he does, and the tattoo on one arm and toothy grin puts one more in mind of the cheekie-chappie NCO. As it is, he looks nothing like any Royals we have seen this century.

When Sheen's envoy gets to the French court - those fashionable French wear collarless blue tunic coats and matching trousers and their hair slicked back - a modern British soldier finds himself skipping the small fact of the French Revolution and addressing himself to the King of France. Gimmick follows gimmick as the lines slug it out with extraneous ideas. As they stand in a crossfire of spotlights on a platform that rises above the stage, the Dauphin, the Constable of France and the Duke of Orleans look as if they are the backing trio in a New Romantic video. They appear, later, comically encased in silver-plated two-legged horses that they manoeuvre around on stilts. By this point the horses might as well fly. Here is a production that would be twice as good - twice as disciplined, at least - on half the budget.

Why the update at all, you wonder? Here is a play about war (and nationhood), and when it comes to war, a 20th-century professional army is intrinsically different to a 15th-century one. Consistency, coherence - OK - straightforward meaning exploded in our face.

It's a relief when the young French actress Karine Adrover (making her stage debut as Princess Catherine) enters for the simple English language- learning scene with her waiting woman. It's a relief in the final wooing scene, when her dark eyes are beautifully still and amused, and in which Sheen reveals a lovely comic talent as he claims to love France so much he will hang on to all of it. Norman Rodway gives an impeccable performance as the Chorus. Although when he speaks of the "hummmm of either army" we hardly need the extra assistance of the soundtrack. But then there's no stopping some directors.

Anthony Neilson's powerful three-hander The Censor, about the relationship between the maker of an allegedly pornographic film, the man who censors it, and his unfaithful wife, returns to the Royal Court. Directed by the author with a rivetingly fraught sense of sexual tension, this stark, compact play has the disturbing effect of a riddle. As we watch the mysterious, liberated film-maker unravel the dark fantasies in the inhibited censor's own mind, we are left unsure about quite how Neilson views the art v censorship debate. But the erotic charge in this cat-and-mouse relationship - excellently played by Jan Pearson and Alastair Galbraith - is indisputable.

'Cyrano de Bergerac': Stratford Swan (01789 295623), to 27 Sept. 'Henry V': Stratford Royal Shakespeare Theatre (01789 295623), to 27 Sept. 'The Censor': Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, WC2 (0171 565 5000), to 27 Sept.