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The play’s the thing – you too can be Cyrano and Roxane and…

By Nicolas Soames

3 December 2007

5.15 p.m., Wednesday. Approaching post-work time. The afternoon had been fairly quiet in our offices in the English Hertfordshire village where Naxos AudioBooks HQ is situated. So Genevieve Helsby, who runs Naxos Books, and Caroline Waight, the latest arrival to the team, sat around my desk… and we read through a play.

We pulled off the shelves Edmond Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac in the Anthony Burgess translation, a gem of world drama with a curiously powerful emotional punch. It was given an international platform on film by the larger-than-life Gérard Depardieu; and recently, in New York, Kevin Kline gave, by all accounts, a mesmeric performance.

Cyrano de Bergerac has a large cast, so at first we chose our roles lightly. I used the privilege of my position and chose Cyrano, Genevieve was Roxane, Caroline Christian de Neuvillette and we agreed to share the rest – de Guiche, Le Bret, Ragueneau, the duenna and all the others as they came up.

That didn’t last long. Roxane doesn’t appear for some time and after a couple of grand speeches from me, Genevieve had had enough of silence and elbowed me out of Cyrano; I moved over to Carbon de Castel-jaloux and a cadet, and it wasn’t long before characters were batted from one reader to another.

It started as fun even if slightly self-conscious. Though we spend our working lives in the environs of the spoken word, stepping into the spotlight is a very different matter. It is thirteen years since Naxos AudioBooks recorded its first title (Virginia Woolf’s Orlando read by Laura Paton) and I have lost count of the hours I have spent in the studio. Genevieve, too, has produced audiobooks from Edith Nesbit to Wagner’s The Ring: An Introduction. And, when at school, Caroline produced an audiobook adaptation of The Lord of the Rings!

But here we were, actually at the business end even if no microphone was in sight.

And Cyrano de Bergerac, with its flamboyant French declamatory character sustained by Burgess, is no easy read. Here is a sample – in a visit to the theatre, Cyrano, swordsman and poet, ridicules the (over-the-top) pompous actor Montfleury:

CYRANO:   Stay in your stalls,
You vaccine marquises. Your mooing calls
My cane to rummage through your folderols.

SPECTATOR:   Continue, Montfleury.

CYRANO:   Discontinue, rather, unless he,
Unwilling to retire to sty or trough,
Needs disembowelling and his jowls cut off.
Off, off, you offal. Lug your guts away,
You mortadella. Very well, then – stay,
And I’ll remove you slice by slice.

(MONTFLEURY summons up the remains of his dignity.)

MONTFLEURY:   Monsieur, In insulting me you insult the Tragic Muse.

(There are some murmurs of agreement and admiration.)

CYRANO (equably):   If the Tragic Muse had the dubious honour, fat sir,
Of your acquaintance, she would not abuse
Her pious duty. Seeing the blubber ooze
Into your collar and your belly round as a clock,
She’d kick your buttocks with her tragic sock.

SPECTATOR (leading the pit):   Carry on, Montfleury – let’s hear the play.

CYRANO (kindly):   Consider my poor scabbard, please, I pray.
She loves my sword and wants my sword to stay
Inside her. Off that stage!


Rapidly, the power of the drama took hold. We three, chopping and changing through the characters, saw the events unfold from a changing situation. One moment Genevieve understood Roxane’s love for the beautiful Christian de Neuvillette because Genevieve was reading Roxane; a little further on, we had swapped the roles and she was now Cyrano, and feeling his worldly understanding for the young, beautiful lovers overtaken by his passion, his urgency and his eloquence.

You may say you can get the same effect by reading the play silently to yourself or seeing a performance: you can empathise with each character’s situation. But it isn’t the same. Because it is very different experience actually speaking the words out loud. There is a sharper level of reality, of understanding, of participation.

The actor knows his expression is through body, speech and mind. It is his training. Those who have had good drama teachers at school will have an inkling of this, remembering when they were cajoled or coerced to take parts in a read-through of Shakespeare, for example. Of course, some people come naturally to performance, but most of us (myself included!) shuddered at the thought of having to perform. But what an enriching experience it proves to be.

And so was Cyrano de Bergerac in the Naxos AudioBooks office.

Of course, it is only for the office on a late Wednesday afternoon when the phones are mercifully quiet! We are privileged to work with some of the greatest actors in the world. Our experience makes us all the more appreciative of their remarkable talent. In her Christmas review round-up in The Times, Christina Hardyment’s favourite audiobook of 2007 was Bleak House read by the ‘mesmeric’ Sean Barrett and Teresa Gallagher remarkable for her ‘freshness and honesty’ as Esther Summerson.

And both Sean and Teresa have said to me (as so many others as well) that they love to read a big classic ‘because we get to play all the parts!’

So, listen and enjoy the wondrous talents of our readers, presenting the greatest classics.

But how about, one day over Christmas, persuade the family and friends to turn off the television, turn off the CD player or iPod or radio; then take a play – a Noël Coward, or Bernard Shaw, or Oscar Wilde, or a Chekhov, even a Shakespeare – and read it through. Even if there are only two of you!

It probably doesn’t matter what it is – something grand, funny, light or exciting; something old, something new.

So long as it has life, the performance doesn’t matter. The spoken word will bring the art alive.

It will be enriching, you will have fun, and you will appreciate the greatness of great actors all the more!

Nicolas Soames

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