Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
By Tom Stoppard
Old Vic Theatre, London
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
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They're not dead but back at the Old Vic where it all began for Tom Stoppard in 1967. 50 years on this play still sparkles but it is very much a young man's play, cocky and pleased with itself, like an Edinburgh Review. It's enlivened here by two amiable performances by Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire and a great barnstorming turn by David Haig as The Player King.
The central idea of course was ingenious. It explores what might have been going on in the wings, as it were, with Hamlet's “most excellent” friends, whilst his own tragedy was unfolding. Luke Mullins is an old fashioned Byronic Hamlet here, tall dashing and icily calculating. The characters in Shakespeare's play rush on an off playing out their dramas and only briefly engaging with the befuddled pair whilst they are left for the most part killing time with pointless betting games and verbal jousting and all the time trying to figure out what on earth is going on and where they fit in to it all.
The play owes so much to Waiting for Godot, another double act perpetually left waiting, and it must be remembered that this was written just 10 years after Beckett's masterpiece had its London debut, so that revolution in theatre was still relatively fresh. Anna Fleischle's designs here underline the debt to Beckett with characters on board the ship emerging from barrels as in Endgame. Her daring, yet simple designs, combine a beautiful backcloth curtain which is drawn back and forth with a dramatic relish, which works, and a canopy of Magritte-like clouds, which really doesn't.
Stoppard's plays are always pored over for their intellectual conceits, something which either draws or repels audiences, but of course the better ones only work because they are also emotionally grounded. He is undervalued for this. David Leveaux's direction ensures it here by having a perfectly drilled cast who are at times funny, poignant and sad. He also draws out the unashamed theatricality of the piece. The duo are often front and centre, engaging up-close with the audience and lit (great work from Howard Harrison) like comedians doing a curtain number.
A star of Radcliffe's magnitude is to be commended for opting to play the dull one here, Rosencrantz, who is eager and well-meaning and either oppressed or embarrassed by every encounter he has with the crazy Royals. The audience connects with his Everyman charm as he continually fails to have any impact. McGuire on the other hand is the bossy older brother type, more incisive, but constantly trying to flash his intellectual superiority.
Stoppard was inspired by comedy double acts (as was Beckett) and David Haig is an utter joy as The Player King, channelling David Jason's cockney shyster Del Boy from Only Fools and Horses (a huge British TV hit). Haig's breadth of experience is all brought to bear and he revels in the part. The Player King rules his polysexual bunch of travelling players with a firm hand, and offers them up to clients for both theatrical and other more personal delights. His constant sexual pawing of his put-upon 'boy' Alfred (Matthew Durkan), who plays the female roles, manages to be both hilarious and unsettling at the same time.
The Old Vic is to be commended for this 50th anniversary revival. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are very 'modern' characters in a modern play, but it is still very rooted in its time - the 1960s.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead will be broadcast live from the Old Vic to over 700 UK cinemas and many world wide on Thursday 20 April 2017