Arkle nose what’s up

Apr 18 2024 | By More
Arkle sniffs out Maxwell adaptation of Cyrano for Spring show

Edinburgh’s Arkle Theatre bring Edmond Rostand’s swashbuckling 1897 tale of panache, poetry, romance and a prominent proboscis, Cyrano de Bergerac, to the Hill Street theatre next week.

We talked to director Phil Barnes and Cyrano actor John Lally about choosing which Cyrano to stage, what Rostand’s play means to audiences now and how an actor makes such an iconic character their own. And find out what the real downside of wearing a prosthetic conk might be…

John Lally (without prosthetics) as Cyrano in rehearsal. Pic: Arkle

In a crowded field of Cyrano adaptations available, ranging in scale from Gerard Depardieu’s lavish 1990 movie to Catherine Wheels’ three-handed production for children, and with translations from Anthony Burgess to Edwin Morgan’s celebrated version in rhyming Scots, Arkle have gone for Glyn Maxwell’s 2013 adaptation.

If director Phil Barnes has rather less space than the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre in Chester where Maxwell’s adaptation was first staged, he is used to the Hill Street’s small playing area, having helmed the company’s production of Tony Cowie’s The Venetian Twins there two years go, in 2022.

Cyrano is one of my favourite plays and one I’ve always wanted to have a go at directing; the only problem is the scale of it. If you saw the excellent production at the Lyceum in late 2018 you would understand what I mean,” says Barnes.

That 2018 production at the Lyceum, was the “★★★★★ Irresistible” co-production with the Citizens and the NTS, with Dominic Hill directing Brian Ferguson as Cyrano and Jessica Hardwick as Roxanna in Edwin Morgan’s translation. And yes, its scale was rather daunting.


“I love Anthony Burgess’s adaptation of Rostand’s script,” Barnes continues, counting off the possibilities. “I think the poetry and language in it are amazing beautiful and moving. However, with about 45 characters and at well over 3 hours long, it would be impossible to stage in an intimate setting like Hill Street.

“I read several adaptations before settling on Maxwell’s. I think he strikes a nice balance between the often laugh out loud (hopefully) acts 1 to 3 and the far darker acts 4 and 5.”

Hannah Bradley Croall and Steven Bradley Croall as Roxane and Christian in rehearsal. Pic: Arkle

There is no doubting that Cyrano is a splendid piece of theatre. The question is whether it can speak to its audience as more than a simple entertainment.

“I definitely think so,” says Barnes. “It talks of how outward confidence can disguise inner weakness and frailty. Of how our appearance is everything, looks are king and everything else is of secondary importance.

“Cyrano the poet, swordsman and philosopher, a man whose words can charm even the most eloquent and beautiful people is so inwardly scared that he literally can’t see beyond the end of his nose.”

Barnes hopes that his staging also helps give the production a timeless feel, in his solution to bringing the play to such a small venue as Hill Street. His vision is to pare it right back, using no more than a scaffolding tower, bench and two chairs; combined with sparse costumes, using white T-shirts and black jeans as a base.

multiple rolls

That still leaves significant challenges in terms of the casting, even with Maxwell’s adaptation.

“You need 13 strong and capable actors, some playing multiple roles – angelic nuns, tattooed soldiers and crazy French poets – who can carry a story and the audience through a roller-coaster of emotions,” he says. “I’m lucky that I have such a great cast!”

The cast of Cyrano de Bergerac in rehearsal. Pic: Arkle Theatre.

Leading that cast is John Lally in the title role, playing the brilliant poet swordsman with the gigantic nose, who falls in love with his cousin Roxanne but feels he is too ugly to declare his feelings. Instead he gives his words to the handsome but dim fellow guardsman Christian, to woo her.

Like Barnes, Lally is very aware of how many people have played Cyrano over the years and how iconic the character has become.

“It’s a bit overwhelming,” he says. “So I’ve aimed to do what I do with any role and try to find my own sense of the character and do my best to put the story across in line with Phil’s overall direction.


“Within that, I’ve found that Cyrano is a compelling role to play. He’s defined by a set of contradictions; he’s a skilled poet and a fearsome fighter; outwardly unattractive, but inwardly beautiful; always the centre of attention, but, in his heart, profoundly lonely.

“That in turn means that Cyrano is himself an actor, using his wit or bravado to hide the sensitive and vulnerable man inside. And of course that’s the really nice counterpoint with the character of Christian, the young man who just is what he is, with no pretence or front at all.”

The cast of Cyrano de Bergerac in rehearsal. Pic: Arkle Theatre.

Bringing Cyrano’s character to the stage is one thing. How about that nose, that conk, that bulbous monstrosity which Cyrano both hides behind and is the cause of his romantic insecurity?

“’What do we do about the nose?’ was an early part of the conversation with Phil about how we put the character across.” says Lally.

“We agreed to deal with it well before rehearsals got underway so it wouldn’t become a distraction when there are many other details to get right as the production progressed. It is important – but it shouldn’t be the most important thing.

part of the landscape

“We’ve got an off-the-shelf prosthetic (and a spare!) and I’ve had a few trial runs learning to fit it and finding the right adhesives to keep it in place. And yes, I’ve worn it round the house, just to get used to the feel and to understand how it alters my facial expressions.

“Now that the lines are all learnt and we’re using costumes and props I’ve started to wear it for the last two weeks of rehearsals so that the rest of the cast can get used to it as well. For some characters, who know Cyrano well, his nose is just part of the landscape, so they need to be able to ignore it. For others, who are meeting him for the first time, it is astonishing to see, so they need it there to learn to react.

“The most frustrating thing about it is the time it takes to remove and clean afterwards because that means I’ll be the last one in the pub!”


Cyrano de Bergerac
Hill Street Theatre, 19 Hill Street EH2 3JP.
Wed 24 – Sat 27 April 2024.
Evenings: 7.30pm.
Tickets and details: Book here.


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