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Posts Tagged ‘Anthony Burgess’

When I first saw this 1897 Edmund Rostand play 35 years ago, in a version by Anthony Burgess for the RSC, it was Derek Jacobi with a prosthetic nose swashbuckling around the Barbican stage with his sword. Last night there were no prosthetics or swords, it was staged in a plywood box with a few of those orange plastic chairs and some microphone stands and everyone was dressed in contemporary clothes. It’s certainly radical, but it works because its a play about words and poetry and we heard and absorbed them all.

Martin Crimp’s version uses modern language, with slang and expletives, spoken by the actors in their natural voices, all amplified, but it’s still in verse. From the outset you hear someone beatboxing over sacred music and then someone rapping, which is maybe what Cyrano would be doing today. Once the surprise wears off, you find yourself listening intently, more so than you would natural dialogue. It’s faithful to the original story; the only change I could detect was in the opening scene in the theatre where they are putting on Hamlet instead of Clorise. Some actions and interactions are implied or mimed, and it sometimes feels like a rehearsed reading.

In addition to emphasising the verse, some scenes become even more dramatic by being less dramatised. The best example is the balcony scene where Cyrano is feeding lines to Christian as he woos Roxanne. There’s no balcony, and they sit on chairs, but it’s brilliant, and the final scene, where Roxanne hears the truth from Cyrano, is very moving. There were other times like this when I was thinking ‘why is this working?’ while it was, well, working.

It’s the most diverse cast you may ever see on a West End stage, all superb. led of course by James McAvoy, who combines a breathtaking physicality with a visceral, passionate emotionality. He brings the same extraordinary conviction that he did to Macbeth. He’s surrounded by fine performances, though, including Eben Figueiredo as a besotted Christian and Anita-Joy Uwajeh as a somewhat demanding Roxanne. Tom Edden as De Guiche is the man you love to hate.

I wasn’t convinced by director Jamie Lloyd’s similar treatment of Evita as I felt it didn’t serve the story, but here a play which is really about the power of words, poetry and language brings those very much to the fore. I was surrounded by rapt young people, a lot there to see a film star, who having experienced something like this may well become lifetime theatregoers.

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This story has a fascinating history – a 1962 Anthony Burgess novel(la) that became a cult hit, with the final chapter removed by its US publishers – a controversial 1971 Stanley Kubrick hit film, later withdrawn after apparent  ‘copycat’ violence, which Burgess didn’t really approve of  – referenced by rock acts like David Bowie (in his Ziggy persona) & The Ramones in the 70’s – a mid-80’s playscript by Burgess designed to head off others – play produced as a musical in 1990, by the RSC no less, with music by U2’s Bono & The Edge which Burgess also didn’t approve of…..and 20 years on we have the antidote to the musical, a small-scale all-male highly stylised piece ‘without decor’.

Well, I read the book and saw the film & the musical. I also saw a drama school (GSMD) staging of the play (without the U2 music). I had mixed views about the latter three, mostly around the beautification and glorification of violence, and now I have mixed views about this production, though not so much about the same issue (we’ve now had Tarantino, the master of glorification of violence), more about how well it serves the story.

It’s a somewhat prophetic story set in a future where adolescent violence gets out of control and results in government retribution involving brain washing. It uses an invented language, which seemed even harder to assimilate in this production, to create a surreal future dystopian future.

The all-male casting does up the testosterone levels which does aid the characterisation and the violence shocks without glorification. The stylised movement also helps make this appear to be another world. The minimalism (no set or props, simple black clothes) is also fine. It just doesn’t tell the story as well as either the book or the film. It’s also 50 years on from its inception and maybe its a lot less unreal today.

That said, a fine cast of nine actors, only one of whom I’ve seen before, work very hard and do well with the material; I was particularly impressed by Martin McCreadie in the lead role of Alex, a tough one to pull off when most people have the image of Malcolm McDowell permanently imprinted on their brain.

A timely staging and a partial success, I think. I’m not sure this story will ever be served entirely successfully or without controversy, but I suspect Burgess would be happier with this than the others and it is his vision after all.

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