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Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at The Old Vic


50 years ago, Tom Stoppard became an overnight sensation when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead first premiered. The Old Vic plunges straight into its 2017 season with a welcome return to this absurdist play focusing on the two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet who meet their untimely doom over the course of the play.

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One of the biggest draws to this production of course, is its star billing. Featuring Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame as Rosencrantz, alongside Joshua McGuire as Guildenstern and David Haig as The Player, this absurdist play spirals in and out of the Hamlet narrative, throwing out existentialist questions and issues of fate and inevitability. In a kind of backstage play, Stoppard writes the narrative around the events of Hamlet, imagining what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might have been doing offstage, using contemporary language and absurdist humour to fill in the blanks, digging deep into their characters and elevating them to the position of tragic heroes doomed by fate from the very beginning.

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Although Radcliffe brings the star power, and excels at precision comic timing, Radcliffe fangirls might have walked away from the theatre with additional stars in their eyes. It is Joshua McGuire as the more serious and logical Guildenstern that brings in the emotional edge and given a much more complex character, constantly questioning the situations the odd couple find themselves in and trying his darndest to escape the clutches of fate, as Radcliffe as Rosencrantz, a simpleton, only looks on bemused, repeating after Guildenstern and attempting to cheer him up. McGuire delivers the role in all seriousness, and there’s an incredible amount of sympathy developed for the character, making their inescapable deaths all the more painful. Daniel Haig, in playing a man leading the motley crew of players/prostitutes that performed the play-within-the-play in Hamlet, also receives an increased role in the play, eccentric and utterly dedicated to his craft and musing on the nature of performance. Being the most outrageous one of the lot, the rest of the campy troupe (particularly Matthew Durkan as the long suffering Alfred) created multiple opportunities for humour, often while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern looked on in disbelief.

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By setting the play’s events within the timeline of the Hamlet play, Stoppard creates a kind of locked room drama, where both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trapped by the play’s narrative forces, unable to leave the space unless compelled to do so by way of plot. Things are weird from the very beginning, with Guildenstern constantly flipping a coin on heads for over 80 flips in a row, despite the probability that it ought to be 50-50, suggesting that the laws of logic have begun to unravel in this space. Anna Fleischle’s set design is minimal, but helps emphasise the abstract nature of the space R&G find themselves in, with a large curtain being almost all that’s necessary to obscure paths ahead and create an increased sense of depth when characters emerge from behind it. The swirling, marbled patterns of the walls and floor create a sense of unease; a storm’s on the horizon, and the path ahead murky and treacherous for our two unlikely heroes.

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As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern while away the time and engage in wordplay and verbal jousting, the rest of the Hamlet cast make brief appearances, with Helena Wilson as mad Ophelia, William Chubb as the kooky Polonius, Wil Johnson and Marianne Oldham as Claudius and Gertrude, and of course, Luke Mullins as the black prince himself, Hamlet, who seals R&G’s fate with a switcheroo. Audience members who’re familiar with the original play would probably appreciate this more, although it still works independent of prior knowledge of the play.

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For an absurdist play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is incredibly accessible, the humour light and easy to laugh at, and the tragedy of impending doom and an inability to alter fate heartbreaking as McGuire and Radcliffe endear themselves to us over the course of the play, flawed as they are but utterly victims of circumstance. Stoppard elevates the two from Tweedledum and Tweedledee to tragic heroes, and David Leveaux’s capable direction steers our attention in all the right ways, clearly bringing out the existential ideas Stoppard’s script raises while also remaining wildly entertaining. Anyone who’s ever had a brush with Hamlet can and should watch this play, for the incredible performance and timeless script, properly highlighting Stoppard’s genius and skill.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead plays at The Old Vic, London from 25 February to 29 April 2017. Tickets available here

Photo Credit: Manuel Harlan

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