The JdP auditorium at St. Hilda’s, with its upstairs balcony, is a fairly intimidating place to fill – and at the first showing of the drama society’s play, Cyrano de Bergerac, most of these seats remained unoccupied. The story of de Bergerac is now a kind of folklore: that of the anti-establishment hero, dangerous duellist and more dangerous wit, doomed to think himself incapable of being loved because of his one flaw – his enormous nose. Though lacking the slick professionalism of some Oxford shows – the acting of the extended cast is often quite hit-and-miss – the cast at St Hilda’s tells a good story well and provides strong performances from all the leads, with an exceptional turn by Douglas Taylor as de Bergerac.
That said, the real star is Anthony Burgess’s script, translated from Edmond Rostand’s French original. Burgess’s de Bergerac is an acrobatic feat of language, frothing over with words – Christian’s (Charlie MacVicar’s) complaint that he is speechless involves at least three synonyms. My initial fear was that Douglas Taylor’s icily controlled delivery could not possibly do justice to the wordplay: the alliteration, rhyme, the puns tumbling hungrily over one another – the flashes of violence amidst the charm. Taylor quickly found his stride, however, and it is his performance that carries the show. One moment fierce, the next lovesick, he communicated real pathos from behind his massive, comedy nose, making the character of Cyrano genuinely moving.
The cast made do with very little set. Lighting was used atmospherically: blues and purples created the enchanted dusk of a love scene; a warm spotlight became moonlight on a tower. Two boards on either side of the stage for the actors to hide behind appeared like huge frames without pictures, or mirrors, opaque inside. It was a nice touch for a tale about a man unable to look at himself and a world unwilling to see his true form beneath his disfigurement.
The play is a little long, at just over three hours including the interval. But the actors performed impressively throughout, and the regular doses of comedy prevented Cyrano’s lovelorn-ness from ever becoming too sickly. Hopefully on its final run on Saturday Cyrano de Bergerac will play to a fuller crowd than last night – it certainly deserves to.
Cyrano de Bergerac is showing at the JDP Auditorium, St Hilda’s, until Saturday 30th November. Tickets £7/5