Man of a Thousand Voices
Kenneth Branagh Makes Up For His Lack of Soul With Some Verbal Gymnastics
The New Statesman, 27 March 2008
In Kenneth Branagh's rendering of Cyrano de Bergerac (23 March, 8pm, Radio 3) the actor channelled his performance through the control panel of the Starship Enterprise. In a spectacular display of trills and pulses, accents and voices, the great soldier-poet of French literature became a freak only Branagh could operate or interpret. Altogether the play lasted two hours of earthtime, but it felt spookily shorter - the moments it takes to eat the average yoghurt.
In the (abridged) Anthony Burgess translation of Edmond Rostand's 1897 play, Branagh wooed and won Jodhi May's Roxane ("she can knit grace from a twine of air") for the dashing thicko Christian ("the smart new language they all speak eludes me") with letters that were "the last word in tenderness". As usual, everybody died or went into a convent, but that's showbiz.
Cyrano is always bumming out actors. Derek Jacobi tripped over the role, and the mighty Stephen Rea, too. None but Gérard Depardieu in Jean-Paul Rappeneau's 1990 film has zinged the part - the simple problem being that Cyrano is a hero whose soul is actually commented on in the play even more than his nose, and you can't beat Depardieu for soul in all of the world.
Branagh went all out for the verbals. The variety of seemingly unrelated personalities and tones this actor can pack into a sentence dents the brain. One after the other he did Ulster, Ipswich, normal, Lord Longford, Alastair Burnet, then normal-but-wired-on-bennies. Branagh has always gone at Shakespeare like this, too - scavenging through soliloquies for opportunities to mimic and double-take, for any phrasing that could be described as modern. "Stillnesssss. Passssssion. Have. I. Hoped. For. This. To dieeeeeeee," he warned Jodhi May, who suddenly turned into Juliet Stevenson, not quite able to keep the sigh out of her voice. (May's usual mode is silent astonishment, which doesn't come over quite so well on the radio. But who could forget the look on her beautiful face as she steps off a cliff in 'Last of the Mohicans', elegantly committing suicide after her Injun lover gets a hatchet through the neck?)
Only in one scene did the play really become an obvious and perfect radio vehicle: a love triangle contending for airspace, three voices up close to the microphone with their breathing and saliva. Cyrano and Christian are yelling up lines to Roxane, who is on her bedroom balcony insisting that any man who wins her must be "brilliant". Left to his own devices, Christian comes up with something along the lines of, "Can I see you naked?"
"Turn your theme into a loving labyrinth!" Roxane demands. "Embroider! Rhapsodise!" Some women really are hell.
For whole nanoseconds in this scene Branagh didn't have to speak, but you could always feel him in the air, reluctantly demoted to the role of Dave Gilmour on Pink Floyd's 'Final Cut'. And suddenly he'd be back - on his tubular bells, trilling and grinning, drumming his larynx, falling back through the cosmos, sighing his "love, raging and blessing like the sun". Then he secured Christian a night-pass to Roxie's four-poster and slunk off in a dirty coat, his drooping nose like "discoloured ivory". I bloody love Kenneth Branagh.