I remember reading an article by Anthony Burgess, or was it in the interview he gave to Antonia Byatt? I can’t remember. What stuck in my mind was his story about being told he had an inoperable brain tumour. Obviously, he recovered, but for a while he thought he was going to die, and made a conscious decision to spend what time he had left making money for his family. So, he started writing novels. Naturally, he had no choice but to work quickly and in this interview/article announced quite coolly that he found it quite easy to knock off 2,000 words before breakfast. I don’t think I’ve ever recovered from the shock of that statement, and ‘2,000 words before breakfast’ has become the unattainable bar of productivity that I never have and never am likely to attain this lifetime. I can barely manage a 300 word daily blog entry…
So, Anthony Burgess has a great deal to answer for, yet until now, I’ve avoided reading his novels. His translation of Cyrano de Bergerac, though, is a great favourite of mine. It was commissioned for a production by the RSC in the early 80s and Derek Jacobi was cast as Cyrano. I went 5 times, and as the RSC tended to decamp to the restaurant I worked at after the performance, I served Derek and his boyfriend, Pete Postlethwaite, Alice Krige and Sinead Cusak, plus many other members of the cast, throughout the play’s run. Gerard Depardieu’s very popular version was in the cinema’s at the same time, but I didn’t like it. I much preferred this theatre piece.
Sadly, one or two prominent critics of the day lambasted the RSC for wasting the talents of their company on such unutterable rubbish. It made me sad at the time because there was so much to enjoy in this extremely rich, albeit extremely romantic play, not least the marvellously vivid language Burgess had conjured from the French original. Personally, I feel it was the end of one of the RSC’s richer periods—especially when you remember that their next big hit was the inexorable ‘Glums’.
Anyway, all the above was inspired by the discovery that some kind soul had videoed the BBC TV presentation of this production that was aired in 1985, and posted it on youtube. I vividly remember sitting on the floor in a friend’s tiny Alma Square apartment (I was crashing on the sofa for a couple of months between ‘jobs’) to watch the show, and both loving and hating it at the same time: ‘loving’ to hear the words again, especially as spoken by the wonderful Derek Jacobi, and ‘hating’ the sad lack of excitement and atmosphere that I always felt in the theatre.
And now, after more than twenty years, we can see it again. True, it’s been broken it up into 17 parts, so if you’re interested, you’ll have to endure a fuzzy picture and ten minute mouthsful, but if it lives up to my memory of it, you’re in for a treat. I feel I can’t wait, but am determined to discipline myself to save it for the weekend.
In the meantime, here’s a good bit— the humour and vibrancy of language deserves the description ‘good’, not the quality of the video. Here’s Cyrano’s first appearance on the stage and his masterclass in wit to the pom-pom wearing men of fashion he despises so roundly. Sadly, this clip lacks the final stanza of the speech, so if you have time, do find the next bit and let Cyrano finish.