Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Theatre review: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Like so much about Hamlet, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are open to endless interpretation. Two old friends of Hamlet's, they're brought in by King Claudius to spy on his nephew's erratic behaviour, get to the bottom of it if they can, and report back. Later they're used by him again as messengers in an attempt to have Hamlet killed, a plot that ends up backfiring on them. But their appearances are sporadic and brief, leaving each production to fill in the gaps, particularly with regard to how guilty they are of collaboration: Are they happily betraying their friend in return for promised reward? Unhappy with their actions but aware they'll be in danger if they don't comply, like Rosencrantz in 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.

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