Half a century after its debut, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead returns to The Old Vic. Things may have changed around these parts in the last fifty years – off the top of my head, there’s a branch of Byron down the road, and the price of theatre tickets has increased dramatically – but this play, just like its venue, remains sharp.
It famously lifts two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, who we know end up dead, hence the non-spoiler-alert title, and tries to fathom how they met their fate. Was it just a case of really bad luck? Were they a bit dim? Was everyone out to get them from the start? Stoppard may not have all the answers, but he scrutinises their unfair side-lining by the Danish court, and gives them a chance to voice their side of the story. That is, if they even know what the story is. Or where they are. Or which one is which. In these ever more uncertain times, where we’re bombarded with cries of ‘fake news’, conspiracy theories and 24-hour coverage of distressing events, The Old Vic treats us to lines like ‘We are tied down to a language which makes up in obscurity what it lacks in style’. This could have easily described Donald Trump’s tweets, and not a key character’s philosophy on the language of acting.
Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire zip along as the two main characters, in an excellent piece of casting. Time and again, reviewers compare McGuire to Tom Hollander (in appearance as well as acting style), but one of the joys of The Old Vic’s pairing is realising that Radcliffe and McGuire are perfect together.
To the untrained eye, it seems as though director David Leveaux steers this production with a light hand, allowing the actors to play with the gentler humour in the script, rather than dwell on the more cerebral elements. Parts of it are sitcom-friendly, whilst others are borderline pantomime. Writing for What’s on Stage, Leveaux explained that Stoppard plays require ‘enormous precision with the language and staging’, but he’s masterfully concealed his efforts here. At times, you could almost believe Radcliffe, McGuire and David Haig (as The Player) were improvising and everyone was just following their lead.
Stoppard’s original stage directions include: ‘The resemblance between HAMLET and THE PLAYER is superficial but noticeable’ and, whilst that link wasn’t obvious in this production, it doesn’t prove to be a problem. The Player leaps to life as a flamboyant Cockney geezer who’s taken a leaf out of the Libertines’ dress code (yes, Haig can pull off a military jacket à la Pete Doherty and Carl Barat, and he maintains the indie zest of The Player throughout), whereas Hamlet is an almost comically tortured soul whose real prison may not be Denmark but, in fact, his skinny trousers.
While we’re on the subject of Hamlet, it’s worth noting you can enjoy this play with only a basic knowledge of the original drama (though 10 years ago I scored 100% in my A-Level Hamlet exam, thanks for asking). The Prince’s escapades become important to our duo and crucial to their fate, but it’s no disadvantage to be as confused as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern when you see the other actors almost drip-fed onto the stage.
The Player’s troupe is deliberately intense, and Leveaux emphasises their zaniness to the max with an X-rated rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago (the ‘play within a play’ in Hamlet), but they’d still be better company than the Prince of Denmark. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s reactions to the troupe are priceless, emphasising just how far out of their depth these hapless heroes are drifting. It’s a far cry from the coin tossing and bickering they began with.
Whilst Anna Fleischle’s set design isn’t as complex as her award-winning work on Hangmen at the Royal Court, such a verbose and dynamic play would be hampered by a cluttered stage. A Magritte-esque fluffy cloud backdrop sets the surreal tone as the two protagonists philosophise over life, death, and wherever the hell they’re supposed to be going. A crudely constructed ship, complete with barrels, is well-used later, though the sight of Hamlet in a deckchair takes some getting used to.
Crucially, a vast curtain works brilliantly to suggest scene changes, journeys and the huge portion of plot action kept from the two baffled leads, who are desperate to know what they’ve become embroiled in. Of course, curtains are symbolic in Hamlet (actual spoiler: it’s curtains for Polonius in every sense of the word when he hides behind an arras), and they’re arguably even more symbolic in this play, because of the recurring themes of acting and truth, and the concept of death as the final curtain.
Rosencrantz may say, ‘They don’t care. We count for nothing’, but it turns out these two count for quite a lot. When the curtain does fall on their story, with their deaths revealed to the Danish court, you wish they’d spring back to life as The Player does, fresh from his fake murder scene with a knife-wielding Guildenstern. Similarly, when the curtain falls in the theatre, you don’t want this to be the end (unless you’re the scathing reviewer who called this production ‘tedious’ and encouraged people to leave at the interval, in which case, I fear your sense of humour may have died, if nothing else). Anyone for Rosencrantz & Guildenstern 2: Life After Death?
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead runs until 29th April 2017 at The Old Vic. UPDATE: Due to popular demand, the run has now been extended until 6th May 2017.
If you can’t make it to London, catch the NT Live performance which will be streamed in cinemas on 20th April 2017.