Theatre interview: Brian Ferguson on playing Cyrano at Tramway and the Lyceum

Brian Ferguson in Cyrano de Bergerac
Brian Ferguson in Cyrano de Bergerac
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When Gerry Mulgrew staged Cyrano de Bergerac in the landmark Communicado production of 1992, he was lavish in his praise for what was then a brand new Edwin Morgan translation. The director said it reminded him of the Scotia Bar in Glasgow in the late 60s: “A great drinking and talking den, music and song and alcoholic breath bursting out of the snugs, lust and politics snaking their way round the bar, chimera and patter merchants and nutters six deep at the trough and at least half a dozen Cyrano de Bergeracs giving it lip all over the premises and out into the Saltmarket.”

A quarter of a century on, Mulgrew’s description holds true for actor Brian Ferguson. He is taking on the lead role in a new production for the National Theatre of Scotland in collaboration with Glasgow’s Citizens’ and Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum and is relishing the chance to get his tongue around Morgan’s delicious dialogue. “It’s an incredible find,” says the actor. “All of those things Gerry says are true. It’s so theatrical and at the same time so human.”

Written by Edmond Rostand in 1897 and reinvented by the late Glasgow poet in a rich and ribald Scots, it is the story of a man whose gift for dazzling love poetry is no help when it comes to finding love for himself. That’s because he faces an embarrassing obstacle: his enormous, unsightly, formidable nose. Cyrano is convinced that, beautiful words or not, nobody could ever fall for such a funny-looking face.

Resigned to his fate, he can do no more than woo his coveted Roxanne, played here by the CATS award-winning Jessica Hardwick, on another man’s behalf. A soldier in the 17th-century French army, Cyrano writes the love lines for his dim but better-looking comrade Christian, played by Scott Mackie, who claims them as his own. The result is as funny as it is heartbreaking.

“It feels like a gig or a party,” says Ferguson. “We’re having a lot of fun.”

Sitting in the director’s chair this time round is Dominic Hill, head honcho at the Citz, who has a formidable record staging plays that combine a charismatic lead character with a strong ensemble. They include Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and Shakespeare’s Hamlet in a 2014 production starring Ferguson himself.

“I enjoy working with Dominic so much because, as far as it is possible, you’re a part of the ensemble,” he says. “That’s how I love working. I moved back to Scotland from London at the beginning of last year. A big part of that was to do with the culture of a lot of the rehearsal rooms I was in down there and the contrast with the culture up here. When there isn’t an ensemble culture in the room, I find it hard to be motivated, to find a reason for making the work. There’s something about everybody going at it together that means that even when you’re exhausted, you look around at the group you’re with and there’s so much joy that comes from it.”

The actor, however, is under no illusions about the extent of this part. Team player he may be, but he’s rarely off the stage. “Cyrano feels bigger than Hamlet in the amount of physical graft and speaking you’re doing,” he says. “I don’t think I’ve played anything this size before. But because the play doesn’t want to plumb the existential depths that Hamlet does, you get an upward energy that I’m relishing.”

Adding to the theatricality is a live score by the brilliant Nikola Kodjabashia, a frequent collaborator with Hill. “It moves at such a pace that it’s very important that certain storylines have their own musical themes to help orientate the audience,” says Ferguson. And let’s not forget a set of costume designs by Pam Hogg, better known for dressing Debbie Harry, Siouxsie Sioux, Björk, Kylie Minogue, Lady Gaga, Taylor Swift, and Rihanna. “A big part of this show is going to be the costumes,” says Ferguson, describing the contrast between the lavishness of Hogg’s designs and the sparseness of Tom Piper’s set. “We’re all excited by that.”

You find the same kind of contrast in the play itself. The reason the story is so affecting is the switch from light to shade. “If you don’t know what’s in the belly of the piece it can be hard to enjoy the comedy because you’re just strutting around doing stupid stuff,” says Ferguson. “There’s a big event in act four that feels so real. You don’t see it coming because the play doesn’t suggest that’s where it’s going to go. In the Morgan translation there’s such a Glasgow humour, but that humour is fed by all the stuff that lies underneath. It means that when those big, real moments do come, they feel sweeping and genuine – it really gets you.”

Cyrano is at Tramway, Glasgow, today until 22 September; Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh, 12 October until 3 November; Eden Court, Inverness, 7–10 November.