the current Robert Icke production, or honestly believing they're helping, like Guildenstern in the same production? Or are their onstage scenes the only idea they have of the main plot, meaning they're barely aware of the story or their part in it?
Tom Stoppard takes very much the latter view in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are
Dead, the play that was his breakthrough 50 years ago at the Old Vic, the same
theatre where it's now revived by David Leveaux.
Appropriately enough for characters who feel so small in the face of the events
surrounding them, it's a tiny pairing of Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire as
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively, who arrive in Elsinore with a troupe of
actors hot on their heels, and who will also become unwitting pawns in the tragedy.
Much of their time is spent gambling on a coin toss and discussing their own
mortality, as Stoppard brings in scenes from Shakespeare's play, baffling out of
context. The only characters they have any sustained amount of interaction with are
the troupe of actors led by David Haig's Player.
This is a role made for scenery-chewing so Haig is a good fit, regularly stealing
his scenes and broadly comic, although maybe a bit too genial as there's moments
where he could have been a bit more sinister. He is, after all, essentially a pimp:
While Shakespeare's play describes the tragedians as a fairly well-respected troupe
who've hit a rough patch lately, in Stoppard's the acting's almost a sideline, a
front for a company of prostitutes. Haig is very aggressively hands-on with
Matthew Durkan's shirtless Alfred, but I can't say I blame him; I'd have liked to
see him pick up a bit more on the play's suggestion that he's some kind of secret
manipulator of events (in this version of the story, The Mouse Trap doesn't
just get rewritten to mirror Hamlet's story up to that point, it also eerily
predicts how it will turn out for everyone.)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves are a pair of Wise Fools here, stumbling
towards their own doom but philosophising about it as they go. Radcliffe's choice of
roles is becoming predictably unpredictable, and after a fairly showy part in his last London stage role, this time he goes for something quieter and more part of an
ensemble - he's worked with both McGuire and Haig before and is content to be more
of the steady backbone of the play while they steal the limelight. So Radcliffe's
Rosencrantz is dopier, McGuire's Guildenstern more panicky and unpredictable.
The play also toys with the idea of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern realising that
they're characters in a fiction: They struggle to remember anything too far back in
their lives, as if they only sprang into existence at the point that they became
dramatically necessary, when Claudius called for them. Anna Fleischle & Loren
Elstein's costumes for the Hamlet sections make their actors doll-like -
Marianne Oldham's Gertrude looks like the Queen of Hearts - and one of the best
moments has Guildenstern confusedly become aware of the audience once Shakespeare's
characters start addressing them directly.
Although Shakespeare provides the framework of the story, Stoppard's more obvious
homage here is to Beckett and particularly Waiting for Godot, so it's perhaps
no surprise that I struggle to warm to Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.
The only other production I've seen particularly brought out these Beckett parallels
so the fact that Leveaux' version focuses more on the surreal comedy meant I enjoyed
it more this time, although I rarely laughed out loud. It's a classy-looking
production - Fleischle's set extends the already-deep stage out in a shallow thrust
into the stalls, and with a bit of forced perspective makes for an endless
dreamscape behind the hapless characters - and it undoubtedly feels fresh for a
50-year-old modern classic. I enjoyed it more than I have in the past but its clear
debt to a writer I don't like will always be a barrier for me, and occasionally I
did find its introspection dragged.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard is booking until the 29th of
April at the Old Vic.
Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes including interval.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan, Tristram Kenton.