The pen was every bit as mighty as the sword in this new adaptation of the play about the big-nosed, big-hearted swashbuckler.
And it could prove to be an extremely important production in the development of the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre project, which becomes more popular with every summer it takes up residence in the Chester beauty spot.
The first three years of the project has seen comedy, usually Shakespearean comedy, dominate proceedings and 2013 has already seen A Midsummer Night’s Dream delighting audiences.
Writer Glyn Maxwell, a master of wry wit, has returned for his third Chester assignment, following his new version of the legend of Merlin in 2011 and the Twelfth Night sequel Masters Are You Mad? last year.
Merlin and the Woods of Time was an absolute riot and laugh out loud funny while his audacious attempt to follow in Shakespeare’s footsteps had its problems.
I have no hesitation in declaring the first half of his adaptation of Edmond Rostand’s French play as the finest work Maxwell has so far produced for the open air theatre in Chester.
The writer’s main strengths are his sense of humour and poetic turn of phrase so being asked to adapt a work where both are such vital elements must have been a dream come true.
Maxwell came up with his own framing device with a group of nuns impatiently waiting for our hero to arrive so he can tell them his tales of romantic derring-do – eventually giving up and deciding to relate the tales themselves, casting off their habits and taking on roles within Cyrano’s story.
The next hour and a half were a pure joy with Maxwell liberally throwing in his own modern asides – ‘Hm alliteration, I see what you did there’ – while always remaining true to the spirit of Rostand’s original.
Two other key aspects of the production played their part in delivering a triumph: Edward Harrison as Cyrano and director Lucy Pitman-Wallace.
Cyrano is such a difficult role for any actor to take on – for a start, he is described as a cross between an awesome superhero and a vengeful god before he even arrives on stage.
Such a role requires an overload of charisma and the Chester production gets that thanks to Harrison who strides through the character-heavy play with a confident swagger while still emphasising Cyrano’s soul of a poet and timing the delivery of Maxwell’s killer lines with deadly accuracy.
Timing, in fact, was everything here and director Pitman-Wallace judged the pacing of the action, both physical and verbal, to perfection (although personally I was glad she only employed the ‘slow-motion’ cop-out once!).
After the interval it was all change and here was where the Chester Performs-led project entered new and potentially risky territory.
The final third of Rostand’s original sees virtually all the humour disappear to be replaced by warfare, melancholy and tragedy – none of which have really been presented to Grosvenor Park audiences up to now. It was a tonal shift that took some getting used to, not helped by having to convey the impression of an epic siege of Arras within the confines of a small space and with a cast of only 12.
To be fair, this transition of mood was even a problem for the acclaimed 1990 Jean-Paul Rappeneau film starring Gerard Depardieu so it was hardly surprising that it proved a challenge.
But all such problems were forgotten when we arrived at the crucial final scenes between Cyrano and his life-long love Roxane when all pretence falls away and true feelings are at last revealed.
I won’t plot-spoil with any details but Harrison brought yet another nuance to his already stunning portrayal and he was matched by the poignancy and humanity of Sally Scott’s superb Roxane.
Frankly, you could have heard a pin drop as a virtual capacity audience at Grosvenor Park hung on their every word.
Crucially, it proved you can do serious drama in the open air and it provided the ideal transitional work between the light-heartedness of A Midsummer Night’s Dream and the project’s first venture into all-out Shakespearean tragedy when Othello is unveiled in the park on August 2.