Actor and playwright Virginia Gay discusses writing a Cyrano not just for the 21st century but for Melbourne in the aftermath of 2020.
By Melanie Sheridan
While locked down in 2020, actor Virginia Gay wrote the human connection she was yearning for in an adaptation of Cyrano de Bergerac that transforms the title role into a psychological exploration of self-doubt, internalised hate and queer bodies. And, desperate for a happy ending in real life, she wrote one into the play while also filling it with music and laughter and a powerful sense of connection and community – between the actors and the audience.
The script is a very self-aware celebration of live theatre, and live audiences, that taps into something deep that people have been missing. It’s a powerful reaction to 2020, from a creative point of view.
I love that that’s how it reads for you because that’s exactly what it felt like to me. I pitched it to Sarah Goodes just before the apocalypse started. And during those first couple of weeks, as the whole world was changing, we continued talking about it and I could see how even more resonant it was becoming.
Can you elaborate?
I was in Los Angeles for the first six months of the apocalypse, and Melbourne was doing its very intensive lockdown. In both places you had to keep yourself isolated as much as possible. And I’d also just had my heart broken by a woman in San Francisco. So I was existing in this extraordinary suspended state of like hyper-longing: I had a broken heart and to connect with people during that time seemed so important and yet it was also the thing that was most rife with danger.
As I was writing Cyrano, I realised that this is the embodiment of what Cyrano does. What Cyrano says is: ‘connecting with me will somehow destroy you; there’s something rancid about me, so you can’t touch me. But I want, I need to connect. I also want you to be happy. How can I facilitate this but not corrode you with my love.’
As I got months into having not touched another living human being, this sentence came to me. This sentence, which I had up on my wall, was: how do you reach for something that you know you cannot touch? That sense of suspension is what the entirety of 2020 felt like; that’s what lockdown felt like, that’s what the relationship between Cyrano and Roxanne felt like. So I talked a lot with Sarah about how we evoke that feeling of hyper-longing and the recognition that connection is the most important thing but, for a series of reasons, cannot be acted upon.
So it does seem to me to be very much a show about the feelings that we all had in 2020. The beginning of Cyrano, the original, starts in a theatre and it’s a very self-aware piece because it’s all about authorship and control and awareness of the roles that we play and the roles that we cast ourselves as. I remember thinking that we could start it with a direct conversation with the audience, acknowledging that we haven’t been in theatres for so long, we haven’t been in that extraordinary transgressive and permissive space where boundaries are permeable. If you are in the room, with the pheromones of somebody whose heart is breaking and whose heart is taking the courage to re-knit, it’s a different experience to watching Netflix at 4am alone in your kitchen.
My friend said to me ‘You’re talking about this play like it’s the very first piece of theatre that will be back in that theatre. Is that the case?’ And I was like ‘No. No, it’s not. But I think it is the first piece of theatre that has been written exactly about that time. It was created entirely out of the extreme isolation and extreme desire for connection that we were all experiencing, and so it has a sort of holistic or unified frame of reference, and particularly for Melbourne because you went through one of the harshest lockdowns in the world.’
You mentioned that you pitched the play just before the pandemic began, so it wasn’t the initial inspiration. Can you elaborate on what was?
Number one is that I saw James McAvoy’s Cyrano. It was the last piece of theatre that I saw in England before the apocalypse started. I remember thinking: good luck, you handsome movie star, to embody this. Good luck! He did it without a nose – and we’re also doing it without a nose – and when there’s no nose, what you see so transparently is someone who has decided that they are unworthy of love. You see their self-doubt, and their self-hate.
So I got about a scene and a half in and I realised I had to play this role. This is a story that is so familiar to my teenage self, so familiar to my early 20s when I thought I was saving people from the horror. But I also remember thinking so clearly this is the story of a queer body; this is the story of a body that at some point has been made to feel like there’s something about me that is not good enough for you. It’s that idea of there being something about these bodies that somebody has told us won’t satisfy you, and we’ve internalised that language.
It’s a play that has a strong tradition of adaptation and modernisation. Where does your version fit?
One of the things that I’m really interested in – and I think it’s a really interesting question within mainstage theatre companies particularly – is why we keep telling the old stories. And what responsibility do we have if we are going to tell the old stories? We tell them because they’re classics and because their sense of familiarity is calming. And I think that following such a time of chaos, that feeling of familiarity is even more comforting. But they’re also a product of a different time, with different social mores. And if you keep telling the old stories unexamined then you’re not helping to advance our cause.
The stories that we tell have enormous importance. My responsibility as a writer is to do what I call ‘how you hide your vegetables’. It’s about how you try to change the world but through a corker of an evening so people don’t feel lectured, so that they feel like the change is blossoming out from within rather than being fed to them, and so that they go home thinking ‘that was such an indulgent and lovely and ridiculous dinner’ and then a couple of days later they go ‘wait a minute, there was zucchini in that!’ I don’t think entertainment and fighting for something more are mutually exclusive; if you can do them both at once, then that is the sweet spot.
Anyway as I got out of interval of the McAvoy production, all I could think was that this was the perfect role for me. This asks everything of me that I can deliver as a performer. But it ends with terrible war and everybody dying. Roxanne, in various productions, either becomes a nun or a whore. And of course Cyrano dies moments after professing his love, confirming that assumption that ‘this love is not for you.’
I left afterwards and called Sarah and said: ‘I don’t know how we can do this play, because it contributes to the kill your gays trope and I don’t ever want to be a part of a narrative that says a queer love is impossible, or that queer bodies are expendable or sacrificial as standard, unexamined narrative tropes.’ And she said, with such casualness, ‘well it’s out of copyright. You should write your own.’ Just like that.
And then the world shut down, so I tried to think of it as an aggressively enforced writer’s retreat. There was no other way to get connection so it was just me writing the connection that I needed. That we all needed. It was me writing the conversations that I wanted to have, that I needed to have. And this feeling I had as I was thinking about Melbourne – this feeling of having the courage to go outside again, the courage to hope for something better, to reach for someone – it led to this idea about the courage that it takes to jump the tracks of the traditional narrative and to actually say: I don’t accept that; I don’t accept that tiny portion of living; I don’t accept that I have to fall on my sword; I don’t accept that.’ So I’m going to risk it and I might fail but I won’t keep doing the same old narratives over and over again, because I don’t believe in those old narratives, I don’t believe in those old gender roles. I believe most of us don’t. So let’s have storytelling that reflects that.
It’s not your first time behind the keyboard. Do you see writing continuing to be part of your creative future?
I’ve written a couple of pilots – you have to in LA – but none of those have seen the light of day. I think writers deserve all the praise because it’s such a grind, and you have to be ruthless with yourself. But I have had such joy writing this. I’m very early in my writing career, but I think it’s the first time that I have written for my own pleasure. I remember the feeling of giving a draft to actors and then seeing them do their alchemy and being able to sit back and go: that’s incredible! Could I do more of that?
It made me love actors in the most extraordinary way because they took this half-shapen thing and made it magic, and broke my heart right there in a rehearsal room and sometimes even through the horror medium of Zoom. So it’s made me completely fall in love with actors again, and I’m sure that once I get back on stage I’ll be like: I’m never leaving it. But yeah, I want to write a lot more. I love that idea of making something and then giving it to someone else and seeing the magic that they do with it. I think it’s extraordinary.
I wanted to pick up on one of the lines you’ve written where Roxanne mentions the concept of lachesism: a desire to be struck by disaster but to survive, in order to put a kink in the otherwise smooth arc of your life. Can you explain this?
I’m so glad that you picked up on that. That word is from my favorite website, the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows. It’s a beautiful website that gives words to feelings that previously had no words. And what a great thing for Roxanne to have over Cyrano, when she tells her: I have these words that don’t even exist yet.’
Of course we all want adventures in our life and we also all long for safety. This time, this 2020 time, was definitely a bizarre kink in the otherwise smooth arc of all our lives. What it taught us was that that anything can happen at any time. We have no idea when we might all be locked down and never be able to touch each other again. So hopefully, that sense of a heightened love for the things that we missed has been sharpened. If you know it can be taken away from you at any time, you have to grab onto it when you can, and hold on for dear life.
I also remember saying to Sarah in one of our early conversations that this show is about the move from the safety but terrible loneliness of isolation back into the mess and the fuss of living. Sarah and our designers Elizabeth Gadsby and Joe Briscoe have just done such extraordinary work in how we allow the theatre itself to wake up, and how we say you’re in this mess with us too – because this is a communal event. The stage is in an almost sterile state at the play’s opening but by the end I would love for it to be littered with mess. It will be a stage manager’s nightmare and I apologise in advance to the assistant stage managers who will be responsible for cleaning up the mess each night.
Cyrano is playing at Southbank Theatre from 24 September until 29 October.
Banner image: The cast of Cyrano (l-r: Tuuli Narkle, Claude Jabbour, Milo Hartill, Robin Goldsworthy, Holly Austin, Virginia Gay). Photo: Charlie Kinross