Telling it Clearly — “Macbeth” vs. “Cyrano”

I’m a story guy. I think the roots of the theater lie in people sharing stories.

I’ve written before about a conversation I had in the mid-Seventies with novelist Louis L’Amour that influenced my thinking. He described how Native Americans, upon their return from a hunt or a battle, knew it was part of their responsibility to share accounts of what they had participated in or witnessed. Not having access to written language, they got their community together to relate these stories by performing them. Sharing these stories, they simultaneously fulfilled the functions of actors and journalists.

Yes, there are theatrical events which de-emphasize stories, but for the most part we go to the theater to witness actors sharing narratives.

So I hold one of the highest obligations of a production to be that it make sure that the narrative is clear.

I saw a production recently in which all of the language was the author’s, but the story (and thus the writer’s intent) was muddy. Shortly after that, I saw another production in which a contemporary writer had taken a classic text and utterly translated it into a contemporary idiom; though the language was quite different, the story was clear, and I think the original writer’s intentions came through brilliantly.

OK, specifics:

The first production I’m referring to is Sam Gold’s production of Macbeth. He has a terrific cast, headed by Daniel Craig and Ruth Negga, and the script is one of the most reliable in the canon. But, as I was watching it, I wondered, “If I were seeing this play for the first time, would I understand the story?” And I don’t think I would. I would get some of the major events (it’s hard to miss the murder of the king). But I doubt I’d track some of the subtler points. I had no such problem with Gold’s production of Othello set in an army barracks in which Craig was a memorable Iago. I just think this time Gold swung and missed.

The second production? A version of Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac as rewritten by Martin Crimp presented at the Harvey by the Brooklyn Academy of Music. At the beginning of the evening, a projection tells us it’s 1640, but the rest of the evening features the ensemble grabbing microphones and frequently breaking out into obscenity-laced rap.

What’s more, a lot of the trappings we associate with Cyrano are not present. There isn’t a plume in sight. A furious duel is fought, but without rapiers. The famous balcony scene is played not on a balcony but on four chairs that could have been purloined from an upper West Side kitchen. And, most pointedly (small joke), James McAvoy’s Cyrano doesn’t have the standard-issue nose. The nose and much of the rest of the world are referred to in the text, but they are not realistically depicted. The characters talk about how big Cyrano’s nose is, but it’s our job to imagine it.

It wouldn’t have surprised me if this Cyrano had been created in a post-pandemic world. The several passages in which actors in conversation faced downstage and spoke directly at the audience reminded me of the Zoom productions at the beginning of lockdown which featured actors in separate boxes facing forward as they played scenes. It was a convention most of us quickly got used to. As it happens, this Cyrano was playing when the lockdown came (in fact, I had tickets for a performance that was never given in 2020). But I think being forced to abandon conventional spacial relationships and costuming, lighting, etc. when putting up or watching productions on our monitors may have had the effect of making theater-makers and audiences realize afresh that theater doesn’t have to counterfeit reality. If you’ve organized your production with care, give us the elements and we in the audience can usually be counted on to do the work of putting the pieces together and making it coherent.

And that is part of the great pleasure of this Cyrano. Director Jamie Lloyd trusts us to see Cyrano’s nose without fitting James McAvoy with one. He trusts us to imagine the balcony. He makes the terms of his contract with us in the audience so concrete that, even minus the traditional trappings, the story does indeed stay clear. It helps that his company is a uniformly strong one. Evelyn Miller makes a particularly dynamic Roxanne; freed of the usual gowns and wigs and equipped with her own share of casual obscenities, she emerges clearly as Cyrano’s spiritual and intellectual match. At times their banter approaches the playfulness of Beatrice and Benedick.

A number of high-profile directors have been engaged in recent years in bold reconceptions of classics. Ivo Van Hove has a mixed record. His A View From the Bridge was a triumph; his Streetcar Named Desire did fatal damage to Tennessee Williams’s subtext. As I said above, Sam Gold gave us a first-rate Othello but here stumbles with Macbeth, as I believe he did with Look Back in Anger. So far I’ve seen two productions directed by Jamie Lloyd – this compelling Cyrano and his fluid take on Betrayal, one of the best productions of Pinter in my experience. It’s not a competition, but …

About dgsweet

I write for and about theater. I spent a number of years as a resident playwright of a theater in Chicago which put up 14 of my plays, and I still think of Chicago as my primary theatrical home, though I actually live in New York. I serve on the Council of the Dramatists Guild. Between plays, I write books, most notably SOMETHING WONDERFUL RIGHT AWAY (about Second City), THE O'NEILL (about the O'Neill Center) and THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT (a text on playwriting craft). I also occasionally perform a solo show called YOU ONLY SHOOT THE ONES YOU LOVE. I enjoy visiting theaters outside of New York. I can be reached at
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