Theatre Review - 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead'Posted by Alexander Hay
MASSIVE SPOILER - They both die at the end
Do characters have a life outside their dramatic context? How would we find them if we were to meet them in person and what do they think about the situations in which they find themselves?
These are the fascinating questions posed by Tom Stoppard in his intriguing, but pretentious play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, revived in a new production directed by Trevor Nunn, which has moved from the Chichester Festival Theatre to the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
The two protagonists of the title are minor characters from Hamlet, who have fallen on hard times and are now on the road. They encounter a band of strolling players performing Shakespeare, most notably that play within a play called The Murder of Gonzago, which mimics in a fictitious drama of the cold-blooded murder of Hamlet’s father by his uncle.
We see figures at the Danish court exchange a few of Shakespeare’s lines and meet Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia, Polonius and, of course, Hamlet himself, before they go off and leave the central duo to muse on the purpose of existence and its end.
Stoppard here attempts to explore the private picture behind the public drama enacted on stage in Shakespeare’s tragedy. But it tells us very little about the characters themselves that we do not already know from the play itself. Furthermore it lacks dramatic impetus, being a case of much talk and little action. However the piece is infused with Stoppard’s trademark high-speed oblique wordplay – “we look at every exit being an entrance somewhere else” – which contains some clever, witty gags that help maintain the interest.
The minimal set, opening with merely the stub of a tree, and the way the drama develops, is in fact reminiscent of that seminal Beckett work Waiting for Godot. As the two courtiers at Elsinore who become metaphors for a whole host of interpretations and notions such as do we as humans have free will, or in some way is everything predetermined, under the control of some omniscient power which is organising everything for us? Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker acquit themselves well and are supported by a hard working cast.
This is a play, though, which stirs the mind not the heart.
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By Laurence Green
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