James McAvoy thrills in an intoxicating Cyrano de Bergerac

Cyrano de Bergerac

Harold Pinter Theatre, London

Some things improve with age, and Jamie Lloyd’s Cyrano de Bergerac is one of them. Dazzling when it first opened in 2019, it now returns to the West End (before traveling to Glasgow and New York) in blistering form, led by a phenomenal performance by James McAvoy. But the intervening years have deepened the shadows in the staging and the preoccupation with loneliness, loss and communication.

Lloyd wrestles Edmond Rostand’s 1897 verse drama away from the feathers and flounces of conventional stagings and brings it into our own image-obsessed age. The result is that a play about a soldier-poet writing love letters for his handsome, tongue-tied rival becomes a searching study of insecurity, masculinity and performative behaviour.

Here Cyrano’s outsized nose exists in his mind only, but that’s enough to erode his sense of worth, a hole he attempts to fill with flamboyant displays of valor and verbal virtuosity. Martin Crimp’s nimble, rhyming adaptation splices the swordplay and wordplay of the original with the contemporary world of poetry-slams, beatboxing and rap-battles. On Soutra Gilmour’s sparse wooden box of a set, the cast conjures the world of the play using words and little else.

It’s intoxicating to roll with a show that so celebrates the elasticity of language and to relish, along with McAvoy’s Cyrano, the potency of words to win, wound and woo. McAvoy handles the script as if it were a musical score, hitting the staccato one-liners, running with a metaphor the way a jazz saxophonist spins off on an improvisatory solo.

But what make this production are the low notes. When Roxane breaks Cyrano’s heart by confiding in him about her infatuation with the handsome Christian, he seems to shrink physically. And when, speaking for Christian, he slips into a soul-baring confession of his own desire and longing for him, it is mesmerizing, sensual and finally very moving.

Eben Figueiredo quietly treads Christian’s path from delight at Cyrano’s help to blank misery at the hollow victory it has secured for him. Evelyn Miller’s Roxane finds interesting contradictions in a woman sick of being objectified yet demanding an ideal man, and Tom Edden is enjoyably waspish as the villainous De Guiche. It’s a thrilling, moving revival with McAvoy outstanding as a man torn in two.

★★★★★

To March 12 then touring to Glasgow and New York, thejamielloydcompany.com

A man holds the hand of a woman sitting down

Toby Stephens and Gina McKee in ‘The Forest’ © The Other Richard

Forest

Hampstead Theatre, London

Another complex love triangle sits at the heart of Florian Zeller’s knotty new play Forest (the writer’s first to have its premiere in English, in a translation by Christopher Hampton). Like many of Zeller’s dramas, it opens in a living room, an unremarkable space that becomes a minefield for the characters as their physical surroundings begin to morph with their unbalanced psychological state.

Here it’s Pierre (Toby Stephens), a well-to-do surgeon, who begins to crumble. We first meet him as he and his wife discuss their daughter’s distressing discovery that her partner is cheating on her. Pierre’s throwaway response seems oddly defensive and we soon realize why. The focus shifts to a bedsit where a second Pierre (played by Paul McGann) is remonstrating with a girlfriend (Angel Coulby) who wants more commitment, then to an office space where Stephens’s Pierre alternately confides in a colleague (Silas Carson) or is interrogated by a sinister, white-faced individual (Finbar Lynch, wonderfully menacing).

Quite what happens and in what order remains uncertain: we’re soon slithering around with Pierre in a moral morass as his mind unravels. There’s a thriller element and a hint of Pinter to it all — does anyone actually die and, if so, how? — but the facts keep slipping and sliding. Meanwhile the neatly compartmentalized elements of Pierre’s life from him — suggested by his body double from him in McGann and by Anna Fleischle’s boxed-up set — become confused, with characters from one appearing in another.

That use of dramatic structure to suggest mental disorientation is, as ever with Zeller, intricate and gripping, and the repetition of scenes with slightly different details is suggestive of the uncertainty of memory and the biased recall of guilt. Jonathan Kent’s production is chic and tense, while Fleischle’s elegant living room becomes nightmarishly strange, filling with funereal flowers.

But this is far from the playwright’s best. The female roles are uncomfortably skimpy. Gina McKee brings a wealth of watchful inscrutability to the wife — but she deserves a much meatier role. Coulby’s girlfriend is painted as needy and neurotic, which may be Pierre’s reductive view of her, but is a most unwelcome cliché even so (as are the gratuitous glimpses of her topless).

Stephens holds the stage with his compelling portrait of a suave, confident man slowly being undone by his conscience, but the play never achieves the moving depth of Zeller’s brilliant El padre.

★★★☆☆

To March 12, hampsteadtheatre.com

A man looks dumbstruck as a woman in an orange wig talks to him

Marcello Magni and Kathryn Hunter in ‘The Chairs’ © Helen Murray

The chairs

Almeida Theatre, London

If truth is malleable in Forestit has assumed acrobatic flexibility in The chairs. Eugène Ionesco’s 1952 absurdist “tragic farce” presents an old man and old woman, in what appears to be a post-apocalyptic world, setting out chairs for a meeting at which a speaker will explain everything. The guests are invisible, the chairs ungovernable and the orator, when he finally turns up, is unable to utter a word.

It’s a play to rival Beckett in its use of stage space to create existential comedy. Omar Elerian’s new staging adds another twist, making the characters themselves ancient vaudeville artists, who appear to have been repeating the play for decades and are now chafing against the routine of the routines.

Before they step on to the stage, we “accidentally” overhear an invented backstage row in which Marcello Magni is refusing to go on, while his co-actors Kathryn Hunter and Toby Sedgwick desperately cajole him. Once on, Hunter and Magni present a richly strange little couple — she resembling an aging Shirley Temple, he calling to mind Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin — marooned center stage amid a baroque arrangement of swagged theater curtains (design by Cécile Trémolières and Naomi Kuyck- Cohen).

They bicker, chat and gradually get around to preparing for the speech, a procedure that takes on its own momentum as they flirt and fight with the unknown dignitaries and struggle with the overwhelming demand for chairs. Soon they are lost in a sea of ​​seating, as the stage spins around them and the fantastical curtain arrangements begin to collapse. The absurdity of staging the show fuses with the absurdity of mounting the talk.

The joy of the show is watching Hunter and Magni, two expert physical comedy actors, execute slapstick to perfection and magic up their own little self-contained world of invisible rules and private imperatives. They’re both absurdly funny and acutely sad. There’s something immensely poignant about Hunter, valiantly ploughing on, face beaming, eyes tormented, as the set disintegrates around her. “It’s a very odd script,” she says, quizzically, as if puzzling over life itself.

★★★★☆

To March 5, almeida.co.uk

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