Hellish: COVID-19 and a broken heart fuel Virginia Gay’s new-look Cyrano

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Gay, who’s 39 now, says her 30s have been glorious but revisiting her old self-beliefs, through the mouths of other actors, has been uncomfortable. “I have to wake up those synapses and teach my brain to self-hate again,” she says. “What’s astonishing is how swiftly those patterns come back. Words have f—ing power – that’s the absolute truth of it.”

Virginia Gay in her much-loved take on Calamity Jane.

Virginia Gay in her much-loved take on Calamity Jane.Credit:John McRae

When we meet, the six-strong cast is running through the musical numbers, written by Gay and musical director Xani Kolac. Gay’s Cyrano has a happy ending and is a “joy bomb”, much in the manner of her last major Australian outing in 2018, as the titular Calamity Jane.

Coming out of 112 days of lockdown last year, the entire script sounded like a love letter to life, says Tuuli Narkle, who plays Cyrano’s love interest, Roxanne. Whereas Rostand’s original “Roxane” found hearing herself described in rapturous terms to be an aphrodisiac, Narkle’s Roxanne prefers to define herself. When the other characters start rhapsodising, she reprimands them for objectifying her. She’s fluid in her gender identity: “The whole Gen-Z free-for-all,” as Narkle puts it.

“Women in a lot of older texts are written to facilitate the male story,” says Narkle. “Going back to read the old play, I thought, how dare Cyrano make her choices for her? And then she has to forgive him because he’s dying, but she’s missed out on a life that could have been really fulfilling and joyful. Here, Roxanne is a fully rounded character who is aware of her own flaws, as opposed to being the manic pixie dream girl of Cyrano’s life.”

The problem that Gay had when considering gender-flipping Cyrano was that in the second half of the original play, “everyone goes off to war – because they’re French – and Roxanne becomes either a nun or a whore”. That didn’t sit well with her “queer body” narrative. So to tell this story, it must be interrogated at every step.

“I don’t want to give my feminist clout to stories that say you can manipulate a woman and still win her in the end,” she says. “I don’t want to tell a story that glorifies gaslighting and catfishing.”

The courage that it takes to actually reach for someone is now 20 times more intense.

Virginia Gay

It was important to Gay that Roxanne be played by a woman of colour in order to confront Cyrano’s self-absorption in his own tragedy, and that Roxanne would constantly challenge Cyrano’s ethics. As Narkle, who is of Aboriginal and Finnish descent, puts it: “One of the burning questions in lockdown was ‘what is normal?’ Because we had the Black Lives Matter movement in the midst of lockdown, and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, I wish everything could go back to normal’ – but then there were a lot of people who were like, ‘Why do we want to go back to exactly that?’”

It’s not unusual for plays to be gender-flipped – a female-only version of Cyrano de Bergerac ran at London’s Southwark Playhouse in 2016, in fact – but often it seems to be for novelty value. Notable political exceptions are Melissa Bubnic’s Boys Will Be Boys, commissioned by the Sydney Theatre Company in 2015, about women working at a currency trading firm. Bubnic got the idea after reading about an incident at the Australian Defence Force Academy in which a male cadet broadcast himself having sex with a female cadet to other men without the woman’s knowledge – but she switched the drama to the male-dominated world of finance and switched the gender, too.

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The all-female cast of the Manhattan Shakespeare Project’s Al’ukhraa: A Study in Othello in 2016 reflected the political tension surrounding Muslim communities and integrated the stories of contemporary Muslim girls into Shakespeare’s text. In 2019, two major British productions of The Taming of the Shrew were gender-flipped, one reworked by trans playwright Jo Clifford, and both set in a matriarchal society to underscore the misogyny of the original play, which our sensibilities may have become dulled to over time.

“When society changes, those roles have to shift to accurately engage with that change,” says Gay. “We do not tolerate poor behaviour from men in positions of power any more. OK, so then how do we write? Because when you’re still telling the old stories – even if you’re a woman telling them – you’re still promoting the same ideas.”

The answer was to get meta. Gay’s Cyrano is self-aware theatre, with the characters querying each other’s motives. The chorus – played by Holly Austin, Robin Goldsworthy and Milo Hartill – was designed to facilitate that playfulness with its familial bickering having a direct impact on the philosophies of the lead characters, such as Claude Jabbour’s Yan.

Despite rehearsals now switching to Zoom, Gay is confident that the finished production will provide the sense of connection that others have been craving as much as her.

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“One of the things I’ve been thinking about is the move away from isolation – which kept us safe, but kept us lonely – into the mess of living again,” Gay says. “That carries such risk. The courage that it takes to actually reach for someone is now 20 times more intense because we’re suddenly so aware of how the body can betray us.”

Cyrano is at Southbank Theatre, The Sumner, July 31— September 4. mtc.com.au