Interview: Deborah McAndrew on CYRANO DE BERGERAC

As part of their 25th anniversary year, Northern Broadsides join forces with the award-winning New Vic Theatre to present an exciting new adaptation of CYRANO DE BERGERAC.

Originally written by Edmond Rostand in 1897, the classic romantic comedy tells the story of a brilliant poet and swordsman named Cyrano who is deeply in love with his beautiful, intellectual cousin Roxane. Yet despite his brilliance and charisma, Cyrano is afraid of revealing his true feelings as he is certain she could never love him in return … for who would love a man with such an enormous nose?

Ahead of its performance at Salford’s The Lowry, Frankly My Dear UK caught up with award-winning playwright Deborah McAndrew to talk about her love for the play and how it is working with her husband Conrad Nelson and the Northern Broadsides team.

Frankly My Dear (FMD): Thank you for taking the time to talk to us today Deborah. Can you start by telling us how you got involved with this project and what drew you to CYRANO DE BERGERAC in particular?

Deborah McAndrew (DM): It’s a number of things really. I’ve known the play for a long time and it’s a story that I’m very fond of. Conrad Nelson, who is my husband and Northern Broadsides director, also fancied doing it and was actually half in conversation with a different writer about it but that didn’t work out and so it came to me. It makes sense really because it fits into a series of foreign language play adaptions that we’ve done together. Conrad and I also wrote an original play called AN AUGUST BANK HOLIDAY LARK but the bulk of my work for Broadsides has been foreign language adaptions. The first one we did was THE BELLS which is a French play, then we did ACCIDENTAL DEATH OF AN ANARCHIST which is Italian and since then, two Russian plays, A GOVERNMENT INSPECTOR and THE SUICIDE which we called THE GRAND GESTURE. Here we have another classic foreign language play and so with that, the style that we bring to it which is narrative music, storytelling and an ensemble company, just fitted into that really well. We’ve already got the method and the approach, style and shorthand to make that kind of piece of theatre. What we’ve actually discovered on doing it is people don’t know it as well as we thought they did. I’m surprised because I’ve always known it.

FMD: Does that make things a little bit easier for you because people who are new to it will have no pre-expectations or does it pose a bit of a challenge?

DM: It doesn’t make it easier or harder really because it doesn’t alter the approach which is even when we know a story is famous we always assume that nobody has heard it before. Whatever you do, even if you’re doing HAMLET, you must tell the story like nobody has heard it before. To be honest, the big challenge with this play, and with the original, is the first act is very confusing. It’s full of long French names and lots of people coming in and out. It’s very difficult to follow the plot so I worked really hard in the adaption to clean that up. It’s about starting the story at a slightly earlier point. The original point of entry is when everyone is arriving at the theatre for a performance and a character called Lignière, who is a poet, says he’s written a rude song about an important man called the Count De Guicheand. I thought, why don’t we start with that song? We don’t hear it in the original play but the first rule of drama is show don’t tell so we open with that. It was quite nice, I got to write a mucky song and make myself laugh.

FMD: The original Cyrano is entirely in rhyming couplets but for this adaption you’ve changed the form by combining prose and poetry. Why was that? 

DM: It is about clarity but it’s also about economy. The original is in a very strict form right the way through. The lines have got beats of twelve syllables with a rhyming couplet. If you imagine that you want to say something like “Hi, how are you? Come in” and that is not twelve syllables, you have to start adding words. In fact, what poetry is for me is about condensing it. If you’re constantly dictated by a rhythm or by form, sometimes you want a different rhythm. Rhythm is about storytelling and it’s also about character. When Cyrano is really on one and gets all poetical, then we can fly with that but when somebody becomes very honest and very soldiery, you need to go more prosaic then. It doesn’t make sense to be in the same form the whole way through, not for me anyway, both as a dramatist and as an actor. You’ve got to give actors something they can inhabit and something that will work for them. You’ve just got to trust your own choices and put it before an audience and hope that they respond in a way that you intend them to respond.

FMD: How involved are you in the creative process? Are you actively involved with the actors in rehearsals or do you take a step back and let Conrad take the lead?

DM: It really varies on the project. I was quite involved with Cyrano but with other projects, depending on where it is rehearsing, I don’t have as much involvement. It depends on the director and what else is happening. I just try and deliver the most complete and polished script for day one. Ultimately, you always have to take a step back. The dramatic process, the process of creating drama whether it’s for TV or theatre, it is a collaborative form. There have been a number of different productions of my plays and they’ve all been different. If you can’t cope with that collaborative thing then dramatic writing is probably not for you. You have to understand that ultimately, it doesn’t belong to you and you’ve just got to let it go.

FMD: Why do you think Cyrano is still relevant today? What is it about this play that makes it appeal to a contemporary audience?

DM: First of all, contemporary audiences really like period drama, they like connecting with humans from another time. It’s also very romantic. It’s about unrequited love and I don’t think you could throw a stone in a crowd and not hit someone who has experienced that. We’ve all had that experience of being hopelessly in love or being infatuated with another person who is not interested in us or who we would never believe would be in interested in us. We all know what that feels like so it’s a very common human experience. On top of that, we’ve got a central character who is really engaging and wonderful but who can’t get over his own physical deformity. We all have a thing about our appearance that we can’t get over – most of us anyway – whether we think that our legs are too short or our ears are too big or our teeth are wonky. Here is Cyrano with his massive nose and everybody else seems to over it but him and I think that that is a very real human thing.

Cyrano runs at The Lowry until 22 April 2017 and is on tour nationally. For more details of tour dates and how to book go to www.northern-broadsides.co.uk

About Donna

Donna is the Editor of Frankly, My Dear UK. By day, she is a digital marketing whizz, by night she reviews film, theatre and music for a wide range of publications including WhatsonStage, The Public Reviews and ScreenRelish. Loves Shakespeare, prosecco and Formula 1