“We do on stage things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else.” – Player King
There is certain skill to producing a laugh out loud comedy from a play that fixates on death – after all, the play’s very existence stems from the titular characters’ disappearance from Hamlet initially. We are led to question fate, chance, free will and, in the context of the play, what is left for characters that have a destiny pre-ordained for them. In Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern don’t survive, but could it be different here? What story is left for them to write in a play where we all know the ending? Can they change their story with chance? And ultimately, if we all die, does it even matter? With this play, Stoppard shows that it does.
Stand-out performances abound in a play where the leads are an unlikely amalgamation of identically challenged, socially confused, understatedly philosophical and all seeking their place in the world. David Haig’s Player King leads his band of discontents through the play with all the swagger of a pirate inspired circus ring leader, with a little too much sexual drive and a little too little social awareness. His band of players are a reverse clowning brigade, appearing as mimes with whited faces and striped t-shirts, mute save for their music – a resonant portrayal of the struggling actor perhaps?
Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire are a perfectly balanced double act as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or is that Guildenstern and Rosencrantz)? They bounce off each other with comic accuracy, quick fire witty dialogue and seamless transitions between clowning tomfoolery and existential questioning. Their judgement of the pace of the play is exquisite and the moments of real joy come when these two take the stage alone. Interspersed with scenes from the original Shakespearean production of Hamlet, a play where we are shown to see them literally hiding in the wings, the audience long to have them back as our central characters rather than on the fringes. The contrast is accentuated as they literally hide and make themselves invisible in their own retelling of Hamlet and yet are so very pivotal to their own play.
If this play had a sound track it would get you up and dancing, but threaded with something else, something you couldn’t quite put your finger on. A contemplative melancholy. A thoughtful remembrance. A brief sense of longing. A bleak sense of loss. The troupe of players bring this so beautifully to life with their haunting tune that swirls around the expanse of the Old Vic stage like a needle and thread, intertwining the characters and then unravelling their stories again. The minimalist set, with swooping clouds and pastel colours beautifully helps to evoke the sense of mystery and uncertainty of place and of person.
What is remarkable about this text, which first premièred as a student production at the Edinburgh Fringe, is that it feels as relevant today as it did 50 years ago. There is nuanced dialogue and sophisticated rhetoric, comic interactions and deeper subtexts that remain topical. David Leveaux mines the text for all it’s worth and provides us the audience with a fully rounded production that constantly oscillates from laugh out loud to deeply contemplative. Meta theatrical to a tee, we are set up to question the existence of actors and the stage. Quotable lines abound from the player King that call in to stark relief the importance of audiences in the arts – “Our existence is only viable if other people are watching… we’re actors – we’re the opposite of people”- and yet here, every nuanced performance feels so very human.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic until 29th April 2017. The play will be broadcast as part of National Theatre Live to over 700 UK cinemas nationwide on Thursday 20th April. Production images by Manuel Harlan. For more information please visit the website.