Making its third appearance (previously staged with Christopher Plummer in 1962 and Colm Feore 15 years ago in the title role) at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival, Edmond Rostand’s greatest hit seems to become more relevant with every passing year since its widely successful première in 1897.
Using Anthony Burgess’ 1984 translation (“We do not take kindly to rhyme on the British stage,” he writes of his own work) seems ideal for a theatre company so dedicated to the Bard’s work and whose actors are so wonderfully steeped in the associated styles and traditions. Sadly, director Donna Feore’s decision to keep “several passages in French, thus allowing our audiences to hear Rostand in his original voice” is unwelcome on several fronts. Of the principals en français, only Colm Feore has enough skill to render Rostand’s lines with panache and conviction. Too many of the others sound like vote-currying politicians whose mother tongue is never in doubt. So many bon mots battle with Burgess’ own brilliance that the out-of-country crowds may wonder if they’re in Stratford anymore.
That problem aside, here’s a production to place near the top of the must-see-theatre list for 2009.
Overall, the design team has come up with an efficient, largely convincing solution to the visual challenges of the quintet of settings spread over a fifteen-year period.
The opening organized chaos of the play-within-the-play (Robert Persichini makes a delightfully ample over-the-top matinée queen, Montfleury) fills the eye with the colourful ensemble and builds steadily towards Bergerac’s ode to deformity. Key to the plot is the hero’s extra-large nose (“Is that monument open to the public?”). The makeup wizards have come up with a profile-rich solution that is the butt of largely unsaid taunts (Bergerac is a master swordsman) and readily believable as the reason for a non-existent love life. To compensate for his physical defect, Rostand has also armed his central character with the gift of poetry—particularly love letters.
With just the toss of some flour by a sous chef, the scene shifts to pastry/stanza emporium of excellent cook, recipe-reciting Ragueneau (a magnificently blended performance from Steve Ross—an early showstopper is his hilarious interpretation of “How to Make Almond Tarts”) who earns the wrath of his cheating wife (Barbara Fulton) and the undying devotion from a covey of penniless poets that eat up the meagre profits daily. Attention to detail makes this bakery scene a joy to behold: the confection lyre adds fun to the foreground even as a downstage solitary swan brings local resonance.
Ragueneau’s food/food-for-thought cookhouse is the agreed-upon rendezvous of Bergerac and his fraternal cousin, Roxane (done up with charm, verve and understanding by Armanda Lisman). The nostril-challenged man-of-letters believes his summons for a one-on-one with the love of his dreams can only mean happiness. Pathetically, he soon discovers that only his friendship is desired plus his personal intervention in sorting out her three other suitors.
The conniving (also married) Comte de Guiche (John Vickery’s timing and tone are superb) has power but no allure, his “substitute,” Valvert (Paul Nolan) has some appeal until a bloodless puncture is punched into his billowy chest in the famous fight-while-declaiming ballade (done to a T by Feore with the unerring creativity of John Stead’s fight directing skill). The man who has caught the immediate attention of Roxane’s discerning eye comes in the handsome form of Christian de Neuvillette (Mike Shara ignites the show with his first entry, teaming up on several occasions with Feore to produce the finest comedy of the play—just saying the name of his beloved is tears-in-your-eyes-funny). Unfortunately, the long-locked beauty is at a permanent loss for words in his affairs of the heart.
No worries. An unexpected collaboration is soon launched: Christian readily agrees to have Bergerac craft love-laden utterances that enrapture then capture the object of his affections.
Soon, the siege of Arras separates the lovers and puts all of her remaining suitors in harm’s way. Santo Loquasto’s minimal set design (and the somewhat awkward arrival of a horseless carriage) is trumped by a single fatal wound that will earn kudos from ardent horror fans (its extreme detail belies the seemingly harmless carnage before and after) and a barrage of bullets and cannon balls which assault the ear and eye with an array of sound and light that scores as high in shock value as it is at odds with the comparatively pastorale decibel count that precede or follow.
As good as he most certainly is in the first four acts, Feore looks deep and long into his lonely character’s soul and finds an emotional depth for his final appearance that is truly unforgettable. His principled life has ended at the hands of his jealous, deceitful enemies yet he leaves the planet content in the knowledge that, unlike Arthur Miller's Willy Loman, he was loved, not merely liked. JWR