Monday, 6 March 2017

Review Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead [Preview]

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard

The Lost Boys

Hot on the heels of the video editor's Hamlet, comes a revival of Tom Stoppard's first playwriting success, the 50-year-old tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildernstern Are Dead.

In 1967  two bit characters in Shakespeare's tragedy were plucked from obscurity, first by a young writer, then by an Observer critic and finally by the literary manager of the National Theatre

"We're just over the moon, it's better than winning the pools, we've been in work for 50 years," says Guildenstern - or is it Rosencrantz ...?*

For those a tad too young to know, the football pools were one of the two ways of winning big money  in 1967, the other being Post Office Premium Bonds.

OK, ok, we're being tongue-in-cheek and metatheatrical as the Old Vic - the original home of the National Theatre between 1963 and 1976 - celebrates half a century of the Danish twosome in Stoppard's play.

This time it's the turn of Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe to take on the double act with David Haig taking up the mantle as the Player King. (who, by the way, speaks fluent Danish for, some might say, rather Stoppardian absurdist reasons).

Directed by David Leveaux,  Radcliffe is the more passive Rosencrantz, gaining in confidence during the play as the wide-eyed little lost boy who wants to "go home" and showing a knack for comedy timing. Meanwhile McGuire grasps the mettle as the fruity-voiced leader of the pair, Guildenstern, and both are clothed in traditional brown and green jerkins with satchels from their shoulders

But Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are also children let loose from the nursery, set against an unrolled cloudy blue sky, half Simpsons cartoon-like, half Michaelangelo Sistine Chapel sky (set design Anna Fleischle, lighting Howard Harrison). After all, unlike Hamlet we do not see or know their parentage. Yet, the child-like aspect is emphasised by a picture book quality to the costumes, as if the Danish royal Court has steeped itself in the pastels of Le Petit Prince.

King Claudius (Wil Johnson) has a paper crown, Queen Gertrude (Marianne Oldham) has an outsize Elizabethan ruff topping a scarlet dress with hooped skirt halting above the ankles. Polonius (William Chubb has a gold braid and Danish  pastel blue jacket with a fairy-tale blonde Orphelia (Helena Wilson), similarly in pastel blue (costumes Anna Fleischle and Lori Epstein).

Hamlet (Luke Mullins) is a confident, languid first rank public schoolboy, all in black, smoothly outwitting the two attendants mired in trying to work out their place in things as tantalizing snippets of the Shakespeare play emerge and disappear around them.

For Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are not acting extras but characters who know only their own lines - when they remember them - and are blocked from knowing the whole story. Haig's Player King enters Brechtian style with a cart but accompanied by a pierrot/commedia del arte band with a klezmer feel (composer Colin Buckeridge).

Indeed Haig's scene-stealing Player King, in an unbuttoned red toy soldier scarlet jacket, has a touch of Fagin about him as well as a slightly Pinteresque menace as he draws the curtain across the stage with what looks like Brueghel's painting of Icarus's fall when the sun melts his wings, suffering while life goes on around him.
Any production of Shakespeare's Hamlet has to overcome its status as a play filled with quotes, bringing freshness to the text. So Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern has to compete now against a plethora of parodies where the premise of two characters hanging around, waiting for their cue is hardly novel.

Yet as we have pointed out in our review of the 2011 Trevor Nunn production, for all the theorizing about probability and literary in-jokes, there is heart and drama at the centre of Stoppard's play. The deracinated pair at times almost seem like refugees in their un-knowledge of what is going on around them and their fates dictated by others, both in person and in paperwork.

This is a solid production with a winsome quality of the nursery mixed with the sting of ill chance and looming death. On its 50th anniversary, it seems the dictum of that well-known stand up Karl Marx still stands up: "History repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce." It's an amber/green light for a play which has now has entered theatrical history but still keeps its edge, both as farce and tragedy.

*We should say that's an off the record quote from Rosencrantz - or - um - Guildenstern, in case you go to the show and wonder why that line isn't in it. OK, we admit it, it's fake news  - we made that one up ... 😉

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