ROXANE is one of the great romantic stage parts for a woman.
Almost as smart as Juliet, far more beautiful than Cleopatra, Roxane is loved by two men – the handsome young nobleman Christian and her brilliant cousin, the long-nosed, rapier-witted poet, Cyrano de Bergerac, who gives his name to Edmond Rostand’s famous play.
Christian realises much earlier than either Roxane or Cyrano, you don’t love the body, you love the soul. So who does she really love?
We’re about to find out in a production of “Cyrano” by Damien Ryan’s Sport for Jove Theatre Company, coming to The Playhouse. Originally written in 1897 in rhyming verse and set in the 17th century, this celebrated stage vehicle has been reworked and updated by Ryan (who also plays Cyrano) to the Belle Époque during which the Eiffel Tower was built, the Impressionists flourished and the Ballets Russes came to Paris.
Lizzie Schebesta played Roxane then and does so now. She took her role so seriously in 2013 that she became “happily engaged” to Yalin Ozucelik, who then played Cyrano, but they’ve both been too busy since then to tie the knot.
She’s one of the talented students from Sydney’s Barker College who followed Ryan into the professional theatre.
“Damien wasn’t my drama teacher at Barker, but I took part in the Globe Shakespeare Festival and we’ve been working together ever since,” she tells “CityNews”.
Ryan has the meatiest role, a mighty intellect, a ferocious swordsman and a poet whose words triumph over his obvious physical defect, a very prominent proboscis, which he fears will prevent him from ever being loved.
He makes up for it with his words and, in one of the most famous scenes in European theatre, he mouths the words of love for the inarticulate Christian to win the hand of Roxane. You could say it’s really Cyrano that she loves, but both Rostand and Ryan suggest that it takes two men to be the perfect man.
Conventionally Roxane must be drop-dead gorgeous and certainly Schebesta is in that tradition, but as she says: “It’s very hard to play Roxane, who’s just described as a beauty, it’s totally uninteresting on stage, but you can find the psychology of the character”.
Luckily Schebesta speaks French, so she could do some research and find out what French scholars said, finding one academic who described Roxane as “making a journey from the profane to the sacred”.
Profane, that is, in the sense of worldly hedonism as Roxane is caught up in the physical beauty of Christian, “the fluff on the top rather than the substance”, as Schebesta says.
“She really grows so much and Damien has fleshed her out a bit, too, so that we really understand her intelligence – she is truly a match for Cyrano, it’s an amazing role.”
Roxane and Cyrano are cousins, she says, who grew up together, enjoying summers as kids in Bergerac.
“He was never loved by anyone except Roxane, and that memory is etched in his mind,” she says.
“We try to make them friendly, like a brother or sister so she doesn’t seem in a romantic context, we try to portray that.
“And yet it is a love relationship that lasts a lifetime.”
The French say “beauty needs no explanation” but by the end of the play, beauty is something quite different. After a plot twist that we will not reveal, Roxane spends 15 years in a monastery and lets go of her physical appearance. Her only contact with the outside world is a weekly visit from Cyrano, on which note the plays ends.
It’s such a classic, but a lot of people don’t know the plot, which says that romance does exist – and this production is very romantic, “very Frenchy”, Schebesta
“Cyrano de Bergerac” at The Playhouse, June 28-July 1. Bookings to canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.