Arts

Theatre: Eight women cannot do justice to Cyrano

Pantomime: Cyrano de Bergerac

Actresses have, quite rightly, been complaining that there are more roles for men than there are for women. One way to address the problem in classic plays is to change the sex of the character. Another way, not so successful, is to have all-female casts with the women pretending to be men. We have seen it recently at the Donmar Theatre with Julius Caesar and Henry IV.

Now at Southwark Playhouse Cyrano de Bergerac is given the all-female treatment. For sheer theatrical bravado and panache of an unashamedly old-fashioned kind, Edmond Rostand’s romantic drama, a dazzling mixture of rhyme and rapier, is hard to beat. Cyrano, poet, soldier, duellist, a man of courage and wit who can improvise and rhapsodise at will, is one of the great romantic figures of all time: a flamboyant, swashbuckling, hot-headed Gascon who scorns all that is ignoble and mediocre.

The role was created by the great French actor Benoît-Constant Coquelin in 1897. In the 20th century, Cyrano has been memorably performed by Derek Jacobi on stage and by Gérard Depardieu on film. A grotesque nose is essential, but the nose has to appear real. It cannot be a pantomime nose tied on with string, as it is in this revival.

Kathryn Hunter, who has played other major male roles (King Lear, Richard III, the Fool, Puck and Kafka’s monkey) is always watchable; but in no way can she and an all-female cast of eight even begin to do proper justice to Rostand, whose play needs a big, colourful production with a big cast in a big theatre.

You may have seen a sweet little movie, Mrs Henderson Presents, with Judi Dench and Bob Hoskins. Henderson was the first producer to be allowed to introduce nudity on the London stage. She promised the Lord Chamberlain, who was stage censor, that her girls would never move. They would appear only in tableaux vivants. The Windmill Theatre became a popular institution for servicemen on leave during the Second World War. The musical version at Noël Coward Theatre ought to work better than it does; it just feels terribly old-fashioned.

Eimear McBride wrote A Girl is a Half-formed Thing when she was 27. It took her nine years to find a publisher. If you have read (or tried to read) the novel, you will know why she took so long. It is not an easy read – even those brought up on James Joyce, Samuel Beckett and Virginia Woolf and the stream of consciousness may be in difficulties. We are inside a girl’s traumatised and disintegrating mind. The ideal venue would be radio and audio. Aoife Duffin gives an incredible performance at the Young Vic. Shut your eyes and listen.

Jeff Wayne has been touring his musical version of HG Wells’s The War of the Worlds in large arenas since 2006. The show reinvented for the Dominion Theatre remains a hybrid, a concert with spectacular animation and video footage. The music roars and thunders. Bob Tomson’s production is pointlessly over-busy and never scary. The narrative line is so bad that for most of the time I hadn’t a clue what was going on.