Rowan Recommends: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead

Thanks to Kate, who follows some excellent mailing lists, I managed to get a cheap ticket to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic theatre on Thursday night, the same day it was broadcast as a National Theatre Live showing. The play is basically an Absurd take on Hamlet, and it’s very entertaining. You can still catch a repeat of the NT screening, so read on for why you should see it (or, if you’re so inclined, why you shouldn’t). 

When I started writing this review in my head on the way back from the theatre, I was going to say that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is thoroughly enjoyable and pretty fresh for something written in the sixties; overall, a ‘highly recommend’ for anyone who likes quirky theatre. I had assumed that I was watching the play from a fairly uninformed perspective, having decided to see it on a whim. However, since then, I’ve spoken to my mum, who also saw and enjoyed it, but found it more mystifying than I did.

This reminded me that even though I hadn’t read up on of the works of Tom Stoppard, my idea of light viewing might have been coloured by the four year literature degree I recently completed. In fact, I’m in an ideal position to get all of the in-jokes, having studied Hamlet as an A Level text, and spent a substantial portion of my degree entangled in the French tradition of Absurd theatre (hush, playwrights of the Absurd, I can hear you quivering in your graves at the word ‘tradition’. And possibly also at the word ‘Absurd’).

Whatever your level of background knowledge, if you like your theatre punishing and delightful by turns, this is the sort of thing you’ll love. It’s very much in the tradition of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, with caricaturish characters, lots of slapstick, and rapid-fire exchanges which fluctuate between hilarity, banality and existential dread. The dialogue is full of non-sequiturs, and much of the plot is ambiguous, so if you want total comprehension or narrative satisfaction this may not be your thing. Still, as a whole, it’s not as much as an assault on the audience as many of its French counterparts. Unlike much of Beckett’s work, concrete events do happen in Rosencrantz, and it’s worth mentioning that these make a lot more sense if you know the plot of Hamlet.

Stoppard’s play takes an inside look at the Prince of Denmark’s (and, by extension, Shakespeare’s) appalling treatment of the hapless Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, who are dropped into random scenes, frequently forgotten about, and summarily executed. It was rewarding to be able to spot all of the nudges and winks to Hamlet, but a basic familiarity with the original is all that’s required to enjoy the excellent cameos from a Snape-like Hamlet, who stalks pallidly on and off stage in a flurry of twirling fingers, and soliloquises in the background with hilarious self-absorption. It’s all very irreverent, puncturing the ‘Alas, poor Yorrick’ balloon with glee, but the intricacy and craft with which Rosencrantz interacts with Hamlet is such that you can’t miss the fondness behind the mockery.

Parts of the script have aged; there was one moment that bordered uncomfortably on a rape joke, and there’s a conspicuous absence of female characters. Broadly speaking, though, the Absurd remains as relevant as ever, and perhaps more so. While throwing out conventional plot and character can make this kind of play seem shallow and/or pretentious, there’s a directness to it that cuts straight to the core of things. The ludicrous nature of recent events breathes new life into the concept of little people flailing around for meaning in an indifferent and occasionally outrageous world, and this production takes every opportunity to bring out the most pertinent lines; “I have no faith in England”, anyone?

The staging was slick and very watchable, using minimal decor to great effect; as Daniel Radcliffe said in the introductory film, they created an incredibly large space onstage “to make two already small men look even smaller”. Speaking of which, probably the most obviously notable feature of the Old Vic’s production and – I’ll admit – the thing that made me take notice of the poster, is that Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) is played by Daniel Radcliffe, boy wizard of international renown.

It’s probably a testament to his ability that I only occasionally thought “good lord, it’s Harry Potter!” I imagine the name has bolstered sales nicely, but it would be hard to argue that Radcliffe is riding on the coat-tails of his own fame; he gave a well gauged performance, nicely in tune with Joshua McGuire’s Guildenstern (or is it Rosencrantz?). The tweedledum and tweedledee balance of the duo made them an enjoyable pair to watch, offering repartee delivered with dazzling fluency, and a couple of very affecting moments – at one point, the audience actually said “awhh”.

To cut to the chase, because this is getting far too long, my advice is the following:

  • Definitely go and see it if you get the chance and the above doesn’t horrify you.
  • Remember: if it sounds like nonsense, it quite possibly is.
  • If you like to ‘get’ things, watch Hamlet first (or at least read a good plot summary). Ideally watch Waiting For Godot too, and/or read a bit about the Theatre of the Absurd, which will give you a good idea of the tradition it springs from.
  • If you’re a playwright, please for the love of god don’t name your play after its protagonist(s). It makes reviewing extremely difficult.
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