The Big Interview: Eben Figueiredo, “We’re all worthy enough to be seen and heard and feel loved.”

It is almost two years since Martin Crimp’s modern take on Cyrano de Bergerac completed its run at the Playhouse Theatre. The acclaimed production by Jamie Lloyd earned itself an Olivier Award for Best Revival and an Ian Charleson Award nomination for Eben Figueiredo, who co-stars alongside James McAvoy.

Speaking to me after completing a day of rehearsals before the production returns to the West End, Figueiredo tells me that coming back to the show almost two years later was a ‘no brainer’ because of the connection formed between the cast and his desire to reconnect with the play’s journey. “Just coming back to a place where I feel loved and a place where I actually feel like I can really be myself on and off stage with these people. On this [production], there’s something so rich about the relationships formed… Some productions, you might meet a few people that really feel like family to you. On this one, it really feels like everyone in here is an extended family.”

There was also that sense of personal connection for Figueiredo when it came to taking on the role of Christian again. “When it all boils down to it, this is where I feel alive – on stage. In other walks of my life, I struggle to feel that same sense of connection, or feeling alive, in that same way. So for me, it’s do or die, the same as the character. ‘If not this, then what?’, that kind of thing you know?”

In the play, Cyrano (McAvoy) uses his lyrical prowess to woo Roxanne (Evelyn Miller, replacing Anita-Joy Uwajeh for the play’s return) by feeding her lines through Christian. Lloyd and Crimp’s adaptation features rap, microphones, modern dress and no sign of Cyrano’s usually huge nose. Is there a challenge in returning to the role, I ask? Particularly when the social landscape has changed post-lockdowns and with both himself and other members of the company having had different experiences.

It’s interesting, Figueiredo says, because he was such a different person two years ago to the person he is now. “It’s such an obvious difference now that you can’t avoid the change. And I think for me, I am still trying to fight the change in some ways, personally… But this forces you into having to really grip stuff and live again. Which is one of the most important reasons why I’ve come back. For all of its challenges, it’s of vital importance to my being, and to the way I interact with this world – and my expression. And that’s what this plays about really, is that self-expression.”

Returning within a new landscape and as a changed person has also resulted in changes to how Figueiredo has approached playing Christian. “Jamie [Lloyd] telling me today, ‘you’re approaching this one very differently this time around’”. Lloyd described him as being quite ‘jazzy’ he says. “I’m quite flowing and just doing what I feel in a comfortable space. Just being able to kind of play and trust it. So I guess that is slightly different.”

Eben Figueiredo (centre) with Anita-Joy Uwajeh and James McAvoy in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Marc Brenner

It is possibly an appropriate description of Figueiredo, given his music work which runs alongside his acting career. Perhaps, I suggest, there is an element of the two mediums bleeding into each other, given his music is jazz-based. “They could be you know, without me realising, yeah. It’s funny when you use that specific word, because like you say, that is my genre.”

On reflection, Figueiredo thinks that coming back to a space where he can speak in his own voice feels like an extension of the self-expression he is able to access in his music. “It feels like an extension of my personal, spiritual, emotional journey. Compared to just coming back and doing another play where you have to do an accent, or do this, or do that, and you are able to detach and step into another body. Whereas this… you can’t escape. All of your shit comes with it.”

Bringing his own experience into the room is something that Lloyd had encouraged in the initial run and has done so again for the play’s return. “He encourages us to bring all of the stuff we’re going through and channel it into what the character’s going through. So I think just sitting with some of those issues, in myself, a little bit more has allowed me to just step into the centre in a fuller way, in some ways.”

It may mean that audience members returning to see Cyrano de Bergerac again will notice ways in which the production has evolved. “Jamie hasn’t held back on going, ‘some of the stuff we were discovering last time, let’s remember that. Let’s come back this way. It’s not written in stone how we’re going to do this this time. Let’s really challenge ourselves again, and take it to a new place.”

Before the production opened in 2019, Lloyd suggested that Cyrano’s carapace of exhibitionism, aggression and wit masked something deeply painful and lonely. I wondered if, for Figueiredo, that sense of loneliness has been heightened in the production, given recent lockdowns. He says it probably has had an effect in some ways and can see how it has potentially affected his own performance but also the togetherness within the company.

“I see it as there’s no conclusion to my pain or the loneliness sometimes in life.” It can be a struggle to talk about it, he says. “[But] the reality is, sometimes you just need to say it to someone. And that in itself is giving it a different energy or a different tone because you’re being honest and you’re opening up – and in that interaction you find some sense of togetherness or some strength to keep going with what you’re doing. So I think even the nature of how I express myself on stage, compared to last time [is different].”

Eben Figueiredo and Anita-Joy Uwajeh in Cyrano de Bergerac. Photo: Marc Brenner

It hasn’t been the easiest time mental health-wise for Figueiredo, as it has been for many others too, he says. “When I’ve talked to friends [and other people], the thing that they struggle with is the sense of worthiness and a sense of feeling you are worth the time and effort or the ears of that other person who’s listening.”

It’s a feeling that resonates with him as sometimes catches himself wondering why he was cast in the production. “Not in my sense of being like ‘why?’ but in the sense of like, ‘why am I so special? Why am I being asked to bring my journey into this role at this time?’ And because of the sense of worthiness sometimes I go, ‘Why me?’”

It’s something that Figueiredo has taken into the role this time, drawing parallels between his own experiences, those of others he has talked to, and Christian’s experiences in the play. “When you’re approaching someone, even if you’re just telling them how you’re feeling and not reaching a conclusion, you still have to rise to that. You still have to go, ‘actually, I’m worth the comfort or the connection I’m going to get with this person when I interact with them.’ 

He thinks that in some ways it is what a lot of the play is about. “[It’s] about that sense of worthiness or feeling inadequate, and being able to kind of overcome those and connect regardless. And I think that’s where [Christian’s] journey is a very interesting one because he finds that sense of worthiness. He finds that life again, through his interaction with Cyrano. But then it’s all kind of dashed or so it seems towards the end.”

Following the London run, this time at the Harold Pinter Theatre, the production transfers to Glasgow and then on to New York for a seven-week run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. It’s something Figueiredo is looking forward to. “Being able to go on tour and go to these places with people that you really connect with. What else is life for? Just creating those memories. And [Glasgow is] personal for James. So that’s lovely to be able to make that really personal.” 

Having had the original New York run cancelled due to COVID means that there is a huge anticipation and there’s a huge excitement to get there, he says. “Good things come to those who wait, and patience is a virtue and all that,” he adds.

Eben Figueiredo and Simon Russell Beale in A Christmas Carol at the Bridge Theatre. Photo: Manuel Harlan

What next, then, for Figueiredo? He was due to film a role in the upcoming adaptation of Londonstani, based on Gautam Malkani’s debut novel, which has been pushed back and will potentially film this summer. But he’s thinking about the future in a more holistic way. “A lot of personal things have happened for me [over the past two years], which has allowed me to evolve but, in many ways, also question the person I was so confident in. So in terms of what’s next for me, I think just continuing that journey of rediscovering the energy that everyone knows me to have.”

“So that’s the more honest and more personal answer is just to say; [doing] things that made me feel me again, and things that made me feel alive, whatever that may be. Whether that’s going on holiday with my friends and family, or whether that’s doing a huge film. That I’m able to express myself. And I think they’re one and the same for me now. And that’s like a beautiful thing to come to. To find your purpose in the multitude of things rather than in one specific thing…just returning to that sense of worthiness and that sense of feeling alive again.”

But Figueiredo is also thinking a lot about representation on stage. “The most beautiful thing about standing up there as a mixed race, white and brown person is to go, ‘yeah, I’m actually representing people who’ve probably not been on this [stage] or don’t see themselves on stage in that way.’ If everyone can feel heard or feel accepted or feel seen that is the kind of end game with all of this.”

It links back to that feeling of worthiness. “I think that’s just the bottom line is that we’re all worthy enough to be seen and heard and feel loved. But because of one reason or another, there’s not been that possibility, in the same way. It feels quite exciting at the moment that there’s more of a potential, more of a possibility. And it feels more essential now than ever before.”

Cyrano de Bergerac is at the Harold Pinter theatre, London, until 12 March, followed by the Theatre Royal Glasgow, 18 to 26 March, and at Brooklyn Academy of Music from 5 April to 22 May 2022.