Did you know that Edmond Rostand’s 19th-century drama in verse Cyrano de Bergerac is what popularized the French word panache in the English-speaking world? This was news to me Thursday night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s annual gala, which celebrated its brand-new president, Gina Duncan, and extended a hero’s welcome to the cast of the Olivier-winning production Cyrano de Bergerac, from London’s West End. And it was Senator Chuck Schumer, while toasting in his Brooklyn brogue, who taught me something missed in my years of American education.
The word panache—then meaning the plume of feathers in Cyrano’s cap—is central to the original and most of the adaptations thereafter. Though to a person, everyone in director Jamie Lloyd’s tight cast has it, it’s been slightly demoted in Martin Crimp’s engrossing rewrite, which David Binder, BAM’s artistic director, was instrumental in bringing to Brooklyn. Whereas Cyrano typically ends literally with the word, this one, helmed by James McAvoy in the titular role, ends in omission instead, Cyrano de Bergerac’s panache defeated finally by the thing that supplied him with it—his overwhelming, artful masculinity.
Hopefully I’m not spoiling anything. The full weight of the production relies in part on expectations around a familiar work. Perhaps you’ve read this story of two military men, one hot but not so bright, one brilliant but grotesque, who, with their better powers combined, woo a poetry-hungry woman. Maybe you’ve seen Joe Wright’s recent adaptation. Maybe as a child, you were haunted by this photo of Steve Martin or encountered The Nutty Professor. As was clear at the performance before the gala’s celebratory dinner, Lloyd’s production is an utterly new thing and doesn’t suffer for it.
Gone is the monstrous nose, and most everything else with it. Soutra Gilmour’s set is a simple plywood box, like an enormous wine crate, set against the more ornate restored walls of BAM’s Harvey Theater. Gilmour’s costumes are culled from London streetwear—a lot of tracksuits and denim. Jon Clark’s lighting is subtle, so when it eventually punches, it’s a knockout. The actors address the audience rather than one another for the majority of its nearly three-hour duration, and they speak in their own accents, showing off a significant range from the British Isles. The focus becomes the words, and the cast’s magnetism. You almost wish Lloyd had gone further to strip down the production, and done away with the sometimes heavy metaphors around prop microphones.
It arrives at BAM from the West End, where it opened in 2019, after a long pandemic delay. After that time away, McAvoy reacquainted himself with the material. He told me on Monday that this, like all of his stage jobs, inspired “the usual anxiety that I’m never gonna get this learned. And yet you always just fucking do, so it’s ridiculous to think about,” he said. “But every time I have to learn the lines again, I get the anxiety like I’m never gonna learn them all, and then I do. Even when we remounted it two years later I had the same anxiety. I’m like, wait a minute, you learned this once before, how can you now be nervous about it?”
To be fair to McAvoy’s anxiety, there are reams upon reams of dialogue, countless alexandrine couplets, that he’s responsible for (the blocking looks practically cardiovascular too, and he, like many a marathoner before him, eats a handful of gummy bears ahead of each show to propel him forward). Plus a lot has changed in the intervening time. He sees it in the audience too.