The real star of Dominic Hill’s dynamic interpretation is Edwin Morgan’s Scots language
This autumn Dominic Hill’s dynamic and eccentric interpretation of Cyrano De Bergerac plays at the Citizens Theatre and Lyceum in Edinburgh. Edmond Rostand’s play has had many incarnations, from Gerard Depardieu’s Cyrano to Netflix’s new Sierra Burgess is a Loser. It is an ever-popular story of unrequited love and (very romantic) catfishing. This production is a raucous ensemble version of Edwin Morgan’s Scots translation. Cyrano is a talented soldier, poet and musician whose physical appearance stands in the way of his love for his cousin Roxanne. His nose specifically, represented in this production by an enormous rubber protuberance strapped onto Brain Ferguson’s face, makes Cyrano believe he is too ugly to be loved. Christian, a handsome cadet, steals Roxanne’s heart with his good looks but lacks Cyrano’s wit and poetic flair. Through the combination of Christian’s initial charm and Cyrano’s language, Roxanne’s love is won. However, it is Cyrano’s letters that Roxanne truly falls in love with, proclaiming she no longer cares about Christian’s good looks, only the words that she thinks he gives her.
Edwin Morgan’s own sexuality was something he had to conceal for most of his life. He hinted at his orientation in poetry that used no pronouns such as The Unspoken, where “although we have not said it we know it[…]without a name to the end”. This is echoed in Cyrano, where love is named over and over again but never in plain sight. In a scene where Cyrano is concealed by the “bleckness” of the night, he can tell Roxanne his love with his own voice, but pretending that his form is handsome Christian’s. He is “but a shedda” as the shadow of his nose becomes his closet.
The star of the show truly is the language, and in Edwin Morgan’s hands the play becomes an entirely different creature to that of previous incarnations. Morgan was the first Scots Makar and a professor of literature at the University of Glasgow for 33 years. He was dedicated to exploring the scope of his own language both in his poetry and through translation. His version of the play is in Glaswegian Scots, a tongue so completely different from the original French that he himself was “concerned to see whether the Scots language was flexible enough to stretch to the demands of a very sophisticated play”.
However, Morgan’s rallying cry from early in his career was “change the rules!”, so the challenge of translating a three-hour long play of alexandrine rhyming poetry was never going to stand in his way. When the piece was first commissioned in 1992, director of the Communicado theatre company Gerry Mulgrew described it as a “little minuet by Haydn suddenly interrupted by a Charlie Parker solo”. In the current production, there is no doubt that this is no longer Haydn, but it is also not Charlie Parker— this production is nothing short of punk.
Punk has been described as a “bricolage” of almost every previous youth culture in the Western world “stuck together with safety pins”. In a sense, this production does the same; all the elements within it that shouldn’t hang together do, through the exuberance of the cast, Morgan’s incredible script, and sheer force of will. At one point an actor sings a song that is simply disconnected French words: “baguette”, “pamplemousse”, “le mer”, delivered in a pouting scat style that creates a mocking nonsense rhyme. Hearing the tone of the French contrasted with the more guttural Scots (at one point Cyrano calls the pretentious actor a “bampot”) compounds the fact that the sentiment of the play is the same in any language, but this is an entirely different flavour. The translation is not just in the words but in the whole culture: when the ice cream girl goes round at the beginning of the show selling wine, pastries and oranges, it is in fact Irn Bru, Buckfast and Tunnocks teacakes on offer.
The legendary Glaswegian designer Pam Hogg’s costumes also lend a distinctly punk edge to the play. Bondage, Molly Goddard-esque tulle, tartan and neon regency dress mingle to create an aesthetic that is impossible to place in time or space. One of Morgan’s aims of his translation was to “widen the horizon” by “bringing European writers into the Scottish awareness”. Here there is no sense that this is a retelling of another culture’s story, rather that the omnipresent emotion of love could come from any mouth, taking with it a taste of its speaker. Combined with the musicians on stage, strobe lighting and perspex staging, it is the fierce energy of the language, by turns anarchic, tender, tragic—yet always romantic—that is expressed through all elements of the play.
The production will translate itself to the Lyceum theatre in Edinburgh from the 12 October to the 3 November, and is a visual and auditory feast not to be missed.