Monday 20 March 2017

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Old Vic, London
18th March, 2017, matinee

As young theatregoers who only got into more frequent theatregoing in recent years, we have the pleasure of discovering 20th century classics for the first time. Whereas others might have seen Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker in Trevor Nunn’s West End production a few years ago or even Adrian Scarborough and Simon Russell Beale at the National in the 1990s, our first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in Stoppard’s debut play (and the first one of his we’ve seen) were Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. This 50th anniversary production (at the same theatre where it had its London premiere no less) is in safe hands with David Leveaux’s production, his fourth major Stoppard revival.

Part of the joy of the play is that it imagines the lives of the peripheral characters in Hamlet, its offstage and unexplained events. The titular quote is so offhand and extraneously tacked on in Hamlet that I often miss it completely, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are often underdeveloped that we don’t really care as to their fate. Stoppard both fleshes out and strips back the double act, they are neither here nor there but retain a sense of character, whether that be the childish games played in lieu of decisive action, or the philosophical musings which seem at once both deep and hollow. This pseudo-cerebralising and metaphysical posturing - upon diverse topics from the reality of death to the nature of acting - mirror those in Hamlet, but the wittiness and meta-theatrical spin they’re given positions Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in an intriguing state of purgatory. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fatally tied to their roles in Shakespeare’s play, as they are to their roles in the court of Elsinore, and the progression towards their inevitable deaths. It is a play constantly (frustratingly?) on the cusp of action and in which there is simultaneously an abundance of meaning and an abyss of meaninglessness. A far from original idea, I’m aware, but the play really is a Renaissance set companion piece to Beckett’s Waiting For Godot.

Radcliffe and McGuire make an effortless double act, easily believable as best friends, and snappily perform the tautological dialogue which creates a seamlessness to the repetitive cycle. Radcliffe suggests a quiet naivety to Rosencrantz, almost apologetic in his cluelessness. On the other hand, McGuire relishes the part of Guildenstern, occasionally affecting a gormless smile, pondering over life’s meanings, grandstanding in a way which Radcliffe doesn’t, but none-the-more enlightened for it. David Haig, meanwhile, is having a huge amount of fun and is on marvellous, scenery-chewing form as the tricksy Player. He gleefully commands his troupe of players-cum-prostitutes who provide a vivacity aided by Corin Buckeridge’s spirited jazz music.

Anna Flieschle’s design gives the Old Vic’s stage an impressive depth, surrounding it with blue, cloud-effect screens. The effect allows Leveaux’s production and Stoppard’s text to breathe; there’s an ethereal quality to the characters’ philosophising, while creating a special void in which the two men exist, cut off from the other characters in the play. The vast stage, which reveals glimpses of backstage areas, only holds a ladder and a light at the beginning of the play, a reference to theatre and the fascination between on and off spaces in the play – indeed, one play’s exit is another’s entrance. The rumination on presence/absence is superbly rounded off in the dying moments of the play. The sudden blackout on Rosencrantz is (from where I was sat anyway) so well done it was like magic, similar to the earlier disappearance of the barrel in which Hamlet hides on the boat.

Having read some of Stoppard’s plays, including the head-scratchingly confusing Hapgood, to the intellectual sagas of The Coast of Utopia and Arcadia, it’s amazing to think his linguistic and theatrical ingenuity was present from his first play. However, this clearly isn’t a great play for women (granted, neither is Hamlet!), arguably the largest female role is actually played by the virtually mute Alfred (Matthew Durkan), and having three white men as the leads suggests there is something to say regarding diversity. Yet this is not to detract from the commendable efforts of Leveaux and his talented cast and creatives, or Stoppard’s cunning skill as a playwright.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays at the Old Vic until 29th April.
Joshua McGuire, Daniel Radcliffe, David Haig and company. Credit: Tristram Kenton

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