The two clowns of Shakespeare’s Hamlet are given their own tragedy, fleshed out for the two of them individually, in Tom Stoppard’s tragicomedy. A difficult read due to all the wordplay, quick exchanges and stage directions, this is a play meant to be seen on the stage, and David Leveaux has done a great job bringing these sympathetic figures to life in their own regard.
The play tells the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two courtiers in Elsinore, old friends of Hamlet, but now loyal to the new usurper king Claudius. In Shakespeare’s classic, they have minor roles – walks-on with few lines – and their end is concluded by the simple line ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead’. But Stoppard tells their story up to this point, reversing Hamlet and giving the major plays from Shakespeare walk-on roles in his piece. R&G take the stage, discussing sometimes incomprehensible, sometimes heartfelt topics, and ultimately get swept away by what they perceive to be fate: that which the audience concludes is their own fatalist attitude and failure to exert free will.
Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire as R&G were terrific, bouncing off each other, and having dead-on cues and reaction times so that the witty, fast-paced dialogue between their characters was flawless. An introductory video to the performance told the audience that the stage at The Old Vic had been enlarged for this production – extending into the seating area, and back into the backstage space; with the blue cloud background and minimal lighting this really had the effect of emphasising how small the men feel in the courtly world they inhabit. And as Radcliffe jokingly pointed out, they’re both pretty small already! The smart, probing Guildenstern was played confidently by McGuire, who struts about on-stage, attempting to gain some sense of identity, which is somewhat undermined by Radcliffe’s easy portrayal of the naive and innocent Rosencrantz who doesn’t think to question quite as much. Indeed, Radcliffe does rise to greater heights when he takes on Rosencrantz’s heartbreaking monologue about the moment one realises they are mortal, and will one day face death. His antsy energy is tragically wasted in Elsinore, where the effect of the courtiers constantly confusing the men has rubbed off on the two themselves so that they frequently can’t tell who they are or what their name is.
One of the main parts I often struggle with when reading the play is that of the Player, but David Haig brings him to life in a way I’d never considered. It’s easy to think of the Players as all the same and not ‘really’ human people, but the cynicism and general devil-may-care attitude about anything other than theatre that Haig gives to him is truly inspired. Indeed, alongside his talented cast playing the other Players, such Matthew Durkan’s comical, but also pathetically tragic, portrayal of the young abused Alfred.
The comic scenes and wordplay are throughout enlivened by beautiful music and stage-craft, with smooth transitions from act to act, but the end is as sombre as it’s inspiration, Hamlet. As the two ‘heroes’ realise their fate, the play once again return to Hamlet, cleverly emphasising the fact that in the modern day we are still largely concerned with the tragedy of the great man, not the common one.
I saw this production at an NT Live screening at a local cinema. To find out more about the show visit: http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2017/rosencrantz-and-guildenstern/