Cyrano de Bergerac

Bella Vista Farm, Baulkham Hills, December 15

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Lizzie Schebesta and Yalin Ozucelik. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Independent company Sport for Jove celebrates its fifth year in 2014. In that short time its outdoor Shakespeare productions have become a highlight on the Sydney theatre calendar.

This season alongside Much Ado About Nothing, the company presents a marvellous production of Edmond Rostand’s 1897 French masterpiece Cyrano de Bergerac: an epic five-act romantic comedy full of poetry, passion and humanity.

One of the great love stories, it tells of maverick soldier-poet Cyrano de Bergerac, an uncompromising man full of passion and wit, who runs rings around everyone verbally and is equally adept with a sword.

He falls in love with the beautiful, intellectual Roxane who would have been his were it not for his enormous nose. Instead, he helps Christian – who is handsome but no Einstein – to woo Roxanne with passionate letters. Only on Cyrano’s deathbed does Roxane discover that he has been the love of her life.

Sport for Jove’s artistic director Damien Ryan has written a vibrant adaptation using verse and prose, which is faithful to Rostand’s original but moves the action from 1640s Paris to the Belle Epoque and the start of World War I.

With a keen sense of how to use the outdoor space, Ryan directs a production that is playful and full of verve yet ultimately extremely moving. Barry French’s set makes the most of the lovely surrounds at Bella Vista Farm, using the homestead balcony for the famous wooing scene (Rostand’s nod to Romeo and Juliet) and a shed for the war scenes, which are greatly enhanced by David Stalley’s sound design. The aptly named French also has fun suggesting the French setting with baguettes to the fore in the boulangerie, while Anna Gardiner’s costumes are a delight.

Yalin Ozucelik is outstanding as the swash-buckling Cyrano, capturing his cockiness, volubility and wit as well as his aching heart and self-loathing. At times he is like a verbal tornado. Lizzie Schebesta is a lovely, feisty Roxanne and Scott Sheridan is very funny as Christian – though the scene when he snaps, wanting Roxane to love him for himself rather than the words that Cyrano puts into his mouth is very touching.

Yalin Ozucelik and Scott Sheridan. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

Yalin Ozucelik and Scott Sheridan. Photo: Seiya Taguchi

The rest of the 16-strong ensemble, who between them play around 50 characters, are uniformly strong.

The production runs three hours but it’s so engaging the time flies. There are few better ways to spend a night under the stars so pack a picnic and treat yourself to one of the best nights of theatre on offer right now.

Cyrano de Bergerac is at Bella Vista Farm, Baulkham Hills until December 30, then Everglades Garden, Leura, January 11 – 26. Bookings: sportforjove.com.au

An edited version of this review ran in the Sunday Telegraph on December 22

Henry 4 review

Henry 4 review

Bell Shakespeare Company, Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House

John Bell’s DNA is all over Bell Shakespeare’s new production of Henry 4. He co-directs with Damien Ryan, using the adaptation he did for the company in 1998 with a few small revisions, on top of which he turns in a marvellous performance as Falstaff.

Distilling Shakespeare’s two plays Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 into one play, Bell removes a lot of the politics and sub-plots to focus on the triangular relationship between Henry IV and his dissipated son Prince Hal, and between Hal and his surrogate father Falstaff, the old reprobate who is leading him astray.

Henry4_Arky-Felix-Yalin-Matthew-John-Terry-Wendy_©Lisa Tomasetti-8839.jpg

Arky Michael, Yalin Ozucelik, Matthew Moore, John Bell, Terry Bader, Wendy Strehlow. Photo: Lisa Tomasetti

The contemporary production is staged on Stephen Curtis’ gritty, industrial set with a shipping container, jukebox and a wall of milk crates, which is partially destroyed in a riotous prelude to the play.

The colourful, streetwise vibe is reflected in the costumes (jeans, beanies and hoodies for the characters in the tavern scenes; suits for the court) along with other touches like tasers, prissy German tourists, a hapless football team, a bike courier and a mad Scotsman whose aggressive drum playing is reminiscent of Animal in The Muppets. Some of these feel like a bit of a cheap laugh but had the audience chortling delightedly.

The score meanwhile includes Queen’s We Are the Champions and London’s Calling by The Clash.

The production is robustly physical, snappily paced and very clear in its storytelling even if the musicality of the language suffers a little now and then. The comic scenes featuring Falstaff and his motley, lowlife crew are more successful than the serious scenes at court and on the battlefield, though David Whitney is in commanding form as the fiercely sharp-tempered Henry IV, who is all too aware of his fragile hold on the crown. His portrayal of the King’s descent into illness is also beautifully judged.

Bell’s Falstaff is a joy. Sporting a fat suit, ruddy cheeks and straggly, grey hair, and dressed as an aging bikie, he revels in the portly knight’s drunken vulgarity, masterfully delivering his slippery wit in a hilarious performance that also has its moments of poignancy.

Hal is not a particularly likeable character but Matthew Moore manages to make him relatively sympathetic. However, his delivery of the language is a little one-note, which works against Hal’s transformation to heroic prince.

Among a solid ensemble Sean O’Shea is extremely funny as Justice Shallow, playing him as a doddery harry high pants, and Tony Llewellyn-Jones is a wonderfully suave Westmoreland.

All in all, Henry 4 is a very entertaining version of Shakespeare’s history plays.

Ends May 26.

An edited version of this review appeared in the Sunday Telegraph on April 28.