Virginia Gay knows exactly what she wants theatregoers to take away from Cyrano.
“I want to give an audience a big, full meal of everything that theatre can do,” Gay says. “We’ve been hungry for so long, I want to give them a plate overflowing with all their favourite foods, and we all sit there and gorge ourselves in triumph.”
A gifted comedian and cabaret artist who became a household name on TV drama Winners & Losers, Gay is both the playwright and star of Cyrano, a gender-flipped, music-filled take on French neoclassical play Cyrano de Bergerac that opens at Southbank Theatre in late July.
The original is the story of Cyrano, a brilliant man who falls for a beautiful woman, Roxane, but seeing himself as unworthy of love uses his literary skills to help military cadet Christian woo her instead. In Gay’s version, Cyrano’s most obvious attribute – his not inconsiderable nose – is nowhere to be seen.
“One of the last pieces of theatre that I saw before the entire world shut down was a production where Cyrano had no big prosthetic nose,” says Gay. “If you take the literal quality of the nose away, what you see is somebody who has decided they are unworthy of love and who is talking about the nose as a metaphor for the body.”
For Gay, fresh from her triumphant role as the lead in the musical Calamity Jane, this insight opened the door for a fresh take on what Cyrano de Bergerac – a play that’s already had a number of interpretations, including film versions starring Steve Martin and Gerard Depardieu – could mean.
“I was like, ‘That’s the story of the female body, that’s the story of the queer body, that’s the story of my own teens and my twenties,’” she says.
“Growing up I had just decided I was unworthy of love, but I made myself sparkling and brilliant – I made myself the most interesting person in any room. But it wasn’t to draw people to me – it was to keep people away from me.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original text has a few problems supporting this reading (spoiler: just about everyone goes to war and dies, including Cyrano). Unwilling to create another story where queer love is doomed, Gay got in touch with director Sarah Goodes.
“She was like, ‘I love Cyrano, I never thought I would have a reason to do it, but you doing Cyrano – yes, that’s it,’” Gay says. “And I said, ‘I don’t know what we’ll do with acts four and five, though, because I have no interest in putting my feminist clout behind a story that says this incredible woman will never find love.’ And she said with such impunity, ‘Oh it’s out of copyright. Just write your own adaptation.’”
Rebuilding a classic from the ground up loomed as a serious challenge for Gay, who saw herself as a performer first. But then came the pandemic, which locked down cities and kiboshed live performance, compelling her to focus on her writing.
“I remember thinking [that] this is a huge vote of confidence in me and I’m hugely grateful for it, but there’s no way I’ll be able to deliver a show that the MTC actually wants to do,” she says. “And then within about three weeks, the entire world had shut down and it was just me and the empty page.”
Cyrano was written over the following months while Gay lived in LA. Alone for days at a time, her only companion a dog she was looking after, her situation gave new insights into what the play could be about.
“As I was muddling through, I realised, ‘Holy shit, this is the story we’re all going through right now,’” she says. “Cyrano is about how you reach for something that you know you cannot touch, how you try and find the tiniest slice of connection when you know you can’t have actual full human connection, how you get just enough to live on and the compromises that you make to do that.”
The emotions underlying Cyrano might resonate, but audiences shouldn’t expect grim realism. Gay sees her approach as very much in the spirit of her work in Calamity Jane – a show that’s self-aware but with serious emotional heft.
“It’s filled with songs and it’s filled with irreverence and it’s filled with asides,” Gay says. “And jokes. So many jokes. It’s going to be a love letter to theatre, because one of the things that we haven’t been able to do for the past 18 months is all sit together in a room and experience something in real time with a whole bunch of other people.
“Sarah keeps talking about it as like a balm or a tonic,” Gay continues. “After what we’ve been through, she talks about the hunger that we have for connection and for community, and for love, and for hope. This show is going to deliver a huge dose of that to Melbourne.”
Cyrano is playing at The Sumner at Southbank Theatre from July 31 to September 4. Find more information and book tickets online.
This story is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Melbourne Theatre Company.