Cyrano de Bergerac is not quite the chap he used to be. For more than a century, the defining feature of the hero of Edmond Rostand’s poignant 1897 romance has been his nose: the generously proportioned proboscis that stands between this eloquent soldier and a sense of self-worth. Many may still harbor memories of Gérard Depardieu playing the role with something akin to Concorde in the middle of his face.
But the outsized conk was absent in Joe Wright’s recent film of the drama. And next week Jamie Lloyd’s dazzling 2019 production – also scaling down the nose – returns to the stage (first to the Harold Pinter Theater in London’s West End, then Glasgow and New York) with James McAvoy in the lead. It kicks off a new West End season for Lloyd’s company, with more enticingly cast classics in the pipeline – Emilia Clarke in Chekhov’s The Seagull and Jessica Chastain in Ibsen’s A Doll’s House.
So why, I ask the director on Zoom, get rid of the one feature most people associate with Cyrano? He laughs. “I can not bear it when you’ve got this big prosthetic nose,” he says. “It’s a very physical role and the person playing Cyrano gets very hot and sweaty – but the nose always stays the same color. . . ”
The absent hooter is not the only surprise. Armed with a scintillating verse translation from Martin Crimp, Lloyd’s Cyrano dispenses with just about everything you might expect from this tale of a 17th-century lovelorn soldier-poet who pens eloquent love letters on his rival’s behalf. No frills, no frocks, no fripperies: we’re on a bare stage where the action plays out like some grand poetry slam.
“I needed it to be a believable world where people care about language and poetry,” explains Lloyd, who has a friendly and open manner. “And right now, there is this whole culture of spoken word, slam poetry, hip-hop, grime, which is all about the emphasis on the words. I’m fascinated by language: the way we use it to do great damage, to terrorize people – and also the way it can dazzle, seduce and connect us to others. ”
The result, mashing the wordplay and swordplay of the original with rap battles, is sizzling stuff, intoxicated with the elasticity, beauty and power of language. But for all its playful panache, this Cyrano is at heart a sad story: Rostand’s drama reveals three lonely people scorched by the search for perfection and damaged by their own sense of inadequacy. “It taps into all our insecurities and our lack of self-worth,” says Lloyd. “That’s one of the reasons for doing these [classic] plays. Uncovering what’s underneath. ”
Over the past decade, Lloyd has built a reputation for firing up new audiences with revitalized classics buzzing with big names. He cast James McAvoy as Macbeth, Martin Freeman as Richard III and Kit Harington as Faustus. His “Pinter at the Pinter”Season – six months of Pinter shorts – featured Antony Sher, Tamsin Greig, Meera Syal and Lee Evans, among others. It finished with a superb, achingly sad production of Betrayal, starring Tom Hiddleston. Running through many of his productions, particularly the Pinter, is a keen sense of the loneliness and need for validation that haunts so many people.
For Lloyd, bringing a contemporary playwright to work on a canonical drama – Anya Reiss has adapted The Seagull – becomes “a conversation between the original writer and the new one”. But isn’t there a danger of throwing the baby out with the bathwater – or updating for the sake of it?
“Sometimes my own work has been a bit tricksy, a bit gimmicky,” he admits. “I’ve tried recently to step back and try to find the essence of the plays. It’s about stripping away the baggage and performance history and finding the most dynamic, exciting way of telling a story.
“You need very, very little,” he adds. “I learned that from directing the plays of Harold Pinter. He distils the language down to something so careful and disciplined and deliberate that your staging has to match that. ”
Lloyd has become one of our foremost Pinter interpreters. He suggests that his affinity with the writer may have to do with his childhood. His father, a truck driver, was away a great deal then had a nasty accident. Lloyd recalls him sitting at home, staring into space, drinking. “When I think back on it now, I think, ‘God, the acute loneliness.'”
He and his mother eventually moved to live above a fancy-dress shop with a man who worked as a children’s entertainer. His stepdad kept dwarf rabbits in the living room and the lodger, a snake-charmer, put pythons in the paddling pool. “And we had all these bizarre characters – clowns, magicians – coming in to hire costumes for various comedy acts,” recalls Lloyd.
Underneath the clown makeup, his stepfather was a violent man. “My mum picked me up from school once and he had thrown her down the stairs. She was black and blue with bruises. And then he would put on his clown makeup and go and entertain these kids. There was real danger in the house. And that’s exactly what we’re talking about. ” He stresses that his mother eventually found love and happiness. But it’s little wonder he came to adulthood – and to his theater work – with a keen sense of the role of performance in life.
His childhood also left him with a firm desire to champion affordable theater for all. His company has set aside 12,000 £ 15 tickets across the new shows and 5,000 free tickets for The Seagull. It has also launched Emerge, a talent development program offering a mentorship scheme with people from the Jamie Lloyd Company for those taking a first step into the industry; the mentees are paid for their time.
It’s the communal nature of the industry’s work that is so joyous and valuable, he suggests. “We’ve talked a lot about how these plays investigate our lack of self-worth. However, the plays also contain great moments of generosity, forgiveness, kindness and love: the lessons learned by overcoming life’s obstacles. There is always the possibility for change. ”
‘Cyrano de Bergerac’, Harold Pinter Theater, London, February 3-March 12; Theater Royal Glasgow, March 18-26; Brooklyn Academy of Music, New York, April 5-May 22.
‘The Seagull’, Harold Pinter Theater, London, June 29-September 10, thejamielloydcompany.com