I was delighted that (thanks to the Gods of the Almeida and the Old Vic) I could go and see this almost (but not quite) in repertory with Hamlet, even more pleased that I could get the order right* and then, somewhat perversely given point number one, also delighted that this was an extreme staging contrast with the Almeida’s Hamlet.
Our set was the open sky; a miracle of renaissance clouds that glowed and came alive with fabulous lighting by Howard Harrison**. Elsinore was represented by a gorgeous curtain with a 17th-century style map and outsized ships. The ship to London was a raised deck and a few barrels – which helped with the Beckett-esque feel of the play itself. Costumes were equally faintly Jacobean – a green doublet for Guildenstern (probably) and red for Rosencrantz (perhaps).
Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire were an incredibly evenly matched pair as Rosencrantz (probably) and (perhaps) Guildenstern respectively. If McGuire shone a little brighter than Radcliffe, it was arguable in character – Guildenstern is the sharper, wittier one who is more on the ball, possibly more responsible. A distinct older brother personality. Rosencrantz is more willing to go with the flow and take things at face value, while occasionally coming with the deep insight into their condition that unsettles them both***. Every once in a while – befitting the uncertainty each holds in their identity – they seem to swap roles, and proved that both actors were more than capable of carrying off either part.
Although it’s ostensibly all about the double-act, I think the play is at its best when Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are forced to interact with the others – the scenes when the action from Hamlet seizes them mid-stream (like the power of the magic of film in Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures) and they are forced to speak the lines written for them even though they don’t know what they are****. Also the scenes in the company of the troupe of players, who seem to be in a similarly perilous existential position, but have made their peace with it.
David Haig, as The Player (as opposed to a player) was absolutely brilliant as a shabby run-down impresario – a king of shred and patches who also reminded me strongly of Crummles in Nicholas Nickleby (which made this Dickens connection all the more interesting when I found it). No Infant Phenomenon here, though, all The Player’s obvious affection was for poor Alfred (a wonderfully expressive Matthew Durkan – one to watch there) who played the girls in their productions and languished bare-chested in a petticoat. The rest of the players were wonderful, faintly sinister Pierrots who made their own raucous music.
The court of Elsinore had a faintly Alice in Wonderland feel (especially Gertrude’s wonderful red dress – very Queen of Hearts). Hamlet, in Luke Mullin’s hands, was a rock star – all in black, striking poses to show off his (admittedly very good) profile, having the disappearing powers of the Milk Tray Man. He bore very little resemblance to Andrew Scott’s poor tortured soul.
As well as the obvious riff on Shakespeare, and the Beckett allusions (the play is often compared to Waiting for Godot), I found myself making comparisons to the work of Jasper Fforde*****. Although his storybook characters are always themselves – constrained by personality – they know what is happening to them, while poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern can be who they want but have no idea what has happened before or what will come. For all the witty repartee, there was a very real despair at the heart of the play, and a fear that their end was only a temporary reprieve, before the whole cycle starts again.
* Rosencrantz and Guildenstern makes it very clear that Hamlet comes first – both the man and the play.
** I can’t claim I normally notice how good the lighting is, but I had been reading this article on the art – and science – of it all and am currently therefore much more conscious of the skill involved.
*** You do know the plot (or at least the premise) of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, don’t you? If not, you’ll have been hugely confused by this whole review. Basically, it’s about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, those minor parts in Hamlet, and what happens to the characters as they fit into and around the action. And it’s by Tom Stoppard, so there’s also a lot of quick back-and-forth and discussion about the nature of logic, free will and death.
Oh, and it’s very funny.
**** This is literally my worst nightmare – being on stage and not knowing the part.
***** This Hamlet could totally have won the Most Troubled Romantic Lead (Male) trophy from Heathcliff.