GIVEN that the issue of diversity in the arts is currently on the news agenda it is perhaps timely that a play is being staged in which the cast is made up entirely of women.
The play in question is Edmond Rostand’s classic, Cyrano De Bergerac and features Olivier award-winning actress Kathryn Hunter in the lead role.
Adapted by Glyn Maxwell, it opens at the Southwark Playhouse on Thursday and is directed by Russell Bolam who makes a welcome return to the Elephant & Castle venue after his hugely successful production of Three Sisters two years ago.
“I love the Southwark Playhouse as it’s one of the most exciting theatre spaces,” he tells me during a break in rehearsals.
“It’s a great place to work in and I love going there as a punter.
“This play is also one of my favourites. It’s a great love story in terms of what happens with Cyrano and Roxanne, and an extraordinary play which is why it’s lasted hundreds of years.
“What I love about it is it’s got a bit of everything and each act focuses on something different. Act 1 is about swashbuckling, and is a bit like the Three Musketeers, Act 2 is farcical, Act 3 is a rom com, Act 4 is a tragic Journey’s End and Act 5 is like Chekov. It’s brilliant.
“I’ve also been a huge fan of Glyn’s for many years so when I heard he was adapting it and it was a play that was high up on my shortlist I couldn’t say no.
“I read the script and thought wow – this is the best I’ve read.”
For those who don’t know, Cyrano de Bergerac is a swordsman, philosopher, poet and Gascon. However none of this makes him happy. What he longs for above all else is the love of the beautiful Roxanne.
Unfortunately he has a problem and that is his big nose and it is because of this that he believes he is too ugly to be loved.
For Russell, Cryano is one of the great characters of the classics.
“It’s a beautifully tragic comic play and Cyrano is such a beautiful contradiction,” he says. “He’s a great poet and swordsman, a philosopher and Gascon and is a class warrior who battles pretension.
“He is an incredible character and hero and yet he feels he has a deformity in his large nose so there is a remarkable vulnerability about him.”
It was originally written in rhyming verse but this adaptation has been reworked so that it will be in free verse, something that Russell is pleased with.
“Cyrano is a play that can be a long evening but this one won’t be! It goes at a pace and should be a funnier adaptation than most,” he says.
“Glyn has broken it apart and reworked it again with his poetic sensibilities so it’s an incomparable and remarkable adaptation, funny and haunting.
“I don’t want to give too much away but it will be a mix of both modern and period dress so it’s going to be very exciting.”
But what he finds most exciting and exhilarating about the whole production is that of the cast being made up of women, although him being “the only chap in the rehearsal room” did make way for a few jokes at the start of rehearsals.
“It’s quite extraordinary because they are an amazing group of actors,” he says. “I have tried to treat them as a company of actors rather than being conscious of them being all women.
“It’s great for the cast because they play both genders and it’s good for them to use their wide range of skills. They are getting the chance to get their teeth into some great parts.
“Kathryn Hunter plays Cyrano which is one of the great roles of theatre and Ellie Kendrick gets her teeth into Christian De Neuvillette, one of the most under-rated characters.
“By playing both men and women it opens up all sorts of characters which is fantastic and brings a whole new dimension to the play. And I don’t think an all women cast has ever been done before which is very exciting.”
And Russell says the themes the play brings up are still as relevant as ever.
“It’s an enduring masterpiece and it’s testament to these great plays that they are still being done hundreds of years later,” he says.
“Cyrano has some real profound questions about what is love about, the nature of the soul and what love is in relation to the body and spirit. At its heart it has a man who feels disfigured. He has a very large nose and feels he’s deformed and so the themes of body image and how love is expressed are very much to the fore.
“It’s also a celebration of poetry and Glyn has found an argument for poetry in our lives and how vital it is that we express ourselves and our love.
“It’s one of those plays that audiences will be incredibly nourished by with the themes and questions within it.
“To bring it to the Southwark Playhouse at this time is incredibly exciting.”
Cyrano De Bergerac is on at the Southwark Playhouse, Newington Causeway between Thursday, February 18 and Saturday, March 19. Tickets cost £20. Visit www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk for full listings