Crossing swords in the name of art

When the swords start flying in The Royal Exchange’s thrilling new production of Cyrano de Bergerac, you don’t need to suspend your belief very hard to feel the fights are for real. The design of the theatre, in the round, means that there is nowhere to hide in a stage fight. Every slap, every punch and, in this case, every sword blow has to make some form of contact.

The trick is keeping it safe while making it look scary as hell. And yes, it can go wrong. Harold Norman, whose ghost is said to haunt the Oldham Coliseum, was accidentally stabbed on stage in the role of Macbeth during the theatre’s 1947 production of the Scottish play that superstition says cannot be named. He later died of peritonitis caused by the sword wound.

Luckily there are no such superstitions linked to Cyrano de Bergerac, the classic French comedy about a brilliant poet and swordsman Cyrano – the man with the big heart and equally big nose – who falls deeply in love with the beautiful Roxanne. And, with veteran stage fight director Renny Krupinski in charge of the action, hopefully there will be no accidents either.

“We don’t work with real swords, they are stage weapons, but they still have the potential to hurt,” says Renny, whizzing one of the said weapons around his head with a whoosing effect, It’s 3’ of steel. It’s not sharp but if you poke it hard enough in your eye, up your nose, in your mouth – it’ll kill you – no two ways about it. Even if you just whack someone with it, it hurts.”

The sword whistles as Renny swishes it through the air again and I don’t need any convincing. He teaches me a couple of moves and, while I didn’t make the fatal error of killing my opponent, I did slip up on two vital points. First, you should keep two feet firmly on the ground for balance… Second, you should never, ever, close your eyes. Keeping your eyes open shouldn’t be difficult, but if you hear the clatter the swords make when they cross, when you are on the other end, it’s not as easy as it sounds.

“You can’t say, ‘Sorry, that was a bit off target,’ when you’ve hit someone in the face with a sword,” Renny continues. “Unlike in fencing, on stage you haven’t got a mask. The danger is ever present. You have to make the actors very aware of how dangerous it is. It sounds dramatic and, on stage, it is, but Renny has been directing fights at The Royal Exchange for over a decade, and while the fighting looks spontaneous and, at times, life-threatening, there is not one move that hasn’t been rehearsed to the nth degree. “Just as every line in the play has been carefully scripted, every move is worked out, but it’s made to look spontaneous.” he explains.” You can’t just give the actors swords and say ‘improvise’ because it looks rubbish. It’s very precise and there’s no margin for error – one step too many and you could end up in the audience with a sword in your hand.”
There are two very different fight scenes in the play. The first sees Cyrano, played by award-winning actor Ben Keaton, show off his swordsmanship during a duel. The second, an energetic version of the 100 fight, which lasts for four minutes, where Cyrano faces 100 opponents sent to assassinate him, a scene not scripted and rarely acted out on stage…for obvious reasons!

“Contrary to popular belief, Cyrano is not a play all about sword fighting,” adds Renny. “There are only two fights in this production but I hope they are full of panache, comedy, thrills and a bit more panache. I don’t think audiences sit there and go, ‘OK, this is the bit where the fight happens.’ Obviously, it’s pretend but, as with the rest of the play, the audience should believe what they see is real. A fight should be thrilling and exciting, but it should also drive the story forward and add a different dimension to the character. The difficulty here at the Exchange, is that the audience is so close. There is nowhere to hide and everything has to be right out there in the open. It’s a fantastic challenge and really what I think theatre is all about.”