Panache. It’s one of those beautifully evocative words – of showmanship, of skill, charm and easy extraversion – that comes to us from the French, via Edmond Rostand’s 1897 play Cyrano de Bergerac. It’s also something Virginia Gay has in spades, an actor who shot to national fame in television shows such as All Saints and Winners & Losers, but whose depth of talent is best experienced live on stage. She was a powerhouse and master of exuberance as a distinctly queer Calamity Jane in Richard Carroll’s Hayes Theatre production in 2016, and she hopes to rekindle that magic in her own adaptation of Cyrano for Melbourne Theatre Company, opening this week.
Gay knew she wanted to play Cyrano when she saw the UK’s National Theatre production with James McAvoy in the title role. “He did it without the nose,” she tells Guardian Australia via Zoom. As anyone familiar with the story knows, this is a weighty distinction: Cyrano’s defining feature is his enormous schnoz, the singular reason he believes he isn’t worthy enough to love the object of his affections, his distant cousin Roxane. “When you do it without a nose,” Gay explains, “it becomes abundantly clear that this is the most interesting person on stage, but they have decided that, for some reason, they are not worthy of love”.
Of course, when you cast a woman in the role, that “some reason” takes on a distinctly queer resonance. Sitting in the audience for the first half of the play, Gay thought: “I have to play this role. This is me in my teens, this is me in my 20s.” But when she went back after interval, she discovered that “everyone goes to war, everyone dies. The story skips forward 15 years and Roxane is either a nun or a whore (you’re welcome women! Isn’t it fun to have all that variety available to you?). Then Cyrano confesses his love and dies in her arms.”
She realised that making Cyrano female in that context was more than problematic; it was something she simply wouldn’t do. “I cannot, as a queer performer, give my energy to a story that says queer love is impossible. I won’t be a part of a story that says, ‘kill your gays’.” Which is not to say that gay characters can’t partake in the catharsis that comes from high tragedy; Gay simply doesn’t think that’s what audiences want in the midst of a global crisis. “I don’t want a tragedy right now. We wanted to make it extremely joyful, extremely funny and filled with music. Everything that audiences have missed about live theatre.”
She went to director Sarah Goodes with this dilemma. “I told her there was no point trying to make this play fit the times,” Goodes recalls. “It can’t. You have to make a new one.” So Gay did, scouring every adaptation (including unofficial film versions such as Roxanne and The Truth About Cats and Dogs) for the aspects of the story she wanted to foreground. Certainly the central conceit – the high-Romantic Cyrano writing the words of love he can’t bring himself to say to Roxane for a doltish but handsome fellow soldier to use in his own wooing – had to stay.
I cannot, as a queer performer, give my energy to a story that says queer love is impossible
“The first three acts of Cyrano are prototypical rom-com,” Gay says. “A classic setup.” But when you modernise it, even the purely comic machinations of the plot start to sour. The fact that Cyrano uses the appearance of a handsome man to woo her love is dangerously reminiscent of the online identity fraud known as catfishing. “If you have a feminist and a queer woman writing this story, and writing about and for a Roxane who is gaslit, catfished and manipulated by another woman,” Gay extrapolates, “then it becomes very difficult”.
The answer was to bolster and empower the role of Roxane, so that she becomes a true equal to Cyrano, able to parry and thrust in the war of wits. “One thing that was really important was to have Roxane challenge Cyrano, to say ‘how could you, a woman, have done this to me?’ I worked so hard to make sure she wasn’t just an object that two people fight over.”
Cyrano has, since Rostand’s debut, become a career-defining role for many actors, from Ralph Richardson to Christopher Plummer and Kevin Kline. Goodes believes the same will happen with Gay. “By her nature Virginia is a life-affirming force, as a person, as a performer and now as a writer.”
Both director and performer talk of the need to cast “a theatre animal” in the part – someone who can, as Goodes says, “play directly to an audience of 500-plus and hold them in the palm of her hand, but at the same time can burrow into still moments of truth.”
The delayed gratification at the heart of the Cyrano story should feel entirely familiar to an audience who has spent 18 months enduring lockdowns and closed borders. And Melbourne’s tentative, almost reticent return to the theatre is echoed in the structure of Gay’s adaptation: “Six actors return to the theatre and try to remember how to put on a show, debate the responsibilities of telling this story. Try to work out how Cyrano goes now.”
Gay wrote her Cyrano while suffering from Covid in Los Angeles – “a truly rotten 14 days of intense pain” – and the result is a work infused with the sensation of suspended longing, but also of hope fulfilled. “Having to keep finding reserves of hope is so exhausting, it’s such a mammoth task. And it needs to be rewarded.” Perhaps a queer female Cyrano who gets her girl is “a narrative we need right now”.
• Cyrano is showing at Melbourne Theatre Company’s Southbank Theatre, Melbourne, until 8 September