Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
by Tom Stoppard
Directed by David Leveaux
Set Design by Anna Fleischle
Corin Buckridge composer
Rehearsal photo: Daniel Radcliffe & Joshua McGuire
Starring Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire and David Haig
The Old Vic Theatre, London
Saturday 11th March 2017, 19.30
The Old Vic Theatre 2017 (The National Theatre of 50 years ago)
Daniel Radcliffe – Rosencrantz
Joshua McGuire – Guildenstern
David Haig – The Player
Hermeilo Miguel Antonio – Courtier
Louisa Beadel – Player
William Chubb – Polonius
Josie Dunn – player
Matthew Durkan – Alfred
Tim Van Eyken – player
Wil Johnson – Claudius
Luke Mullins – Hamlet
Theo Ogundipe – Horatio
Marianne Oldham – Gertrude
Evlyne Oyedokun – Player
Alex Sawyer – Player
Helena Wilson – Ophelia
My original Faber & Faber copy of the play text
It’s a play I’ve been wanting to see for much of the fifty years since its premiere at the same theatre. Then … as the publicity flyer does have “Starring …” … let’s add three of our favourite actors … Daniel Radcliffe (The Cripple of Inishman), Joshua McGuire (Amadeus) and David Haig, who in retrospect, was probably the most interesting and original King Lear I’ve seen. I bought my copy of the play text, I see, in 1969. I read it at the time with great admiration, but never saw it performed.
Daniel Radcliffe & Joshua McGuire
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the two student colleagues of Hamlet from Wittenberg Uni who are drawn into help Claudius, first to distract, then to entrap the Prince in Hamlet. They’re not close. While Horatio, Marcellus, Barnardo, Francisco and Laertes are known by first names, these two just have surnames, and Germanic ones at that, not classical or Italianate ones. Foreigners, then. Classmates, but not pals. They were notoriously faceless parts, and when Tom Stoppard was writing this in the mid 60s he can’t have realised the possibilities afforded by a male / female couple (the female one had clearly had a relationship with Hamlet), or spliff smoking ex-university friends (who see Hamlet as the class nerd), or a gay couple, or any of the other recent ways directors have found of enlivening them.
In part one of this play, they’re mystified observers of the events in the play of Hamlet, meeting the Player (I.e. The chief player and his band) who are to perform the play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago, where Hamlet reveals to Claudius that he knows how he killed Hamlet’s father.
They’re sent to England with Hamlet (Part Two here) bearing a request to the King of England, a vassal of Denmark, to cut off Hamlet’s head. Hamlet switches the letter. The players turn up on the boat – they have stowed away to escape Claudius’s wrath. After all, in some productions, they’re led away in chains after the play. The boat is attacked by pirates, Hamlet escapes and the hapless duo arrive in England bearing the orders for their own execution.
We flash in and out of bits of the play of Hamlet. We’re never sure whether we’re seeing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as the characters in the play, or as extras, I.e. Actors, not sure of what their role is to be. They’re hanging around a lot, which is what extras do on film sets, but so do summoned courtiers with a minor role. They stand on the sidelines, watching the cheerful players cavorting, copulating, playing at killing and dying. They can’t participate, being too into philosophical discussion (my companion describes it as “up their own arses”), then one day … they’re dead.
Daniel Radcliffe is Rosencrantz, the straighter one. Joshua McGuire is Guildenstern, the more volatile one. However they keep getting confused as to who is which, as do the other characters. The parts always were interchangeable. Radcliffe and McGuire are matched in height, both being very short, which helps create their bemused duo contrasted against the rest.
Daniel Haig (centre) as The Player
David Haig is the Player. The best bits of the play for me all revolve around the players. Alfred is the boy playing a girl, of which much is made. The rest add guitar, sax, violin, clarinets. The mimed Murder of Gonzago is fun. In the second part, on the boat to England, the players all emerge from barrels on the stage … one after the other, while two manage to play clarinets. Best theatrical moment, I thought.
David Haig is The Player
Haig brought the house down with his exquisitely timed deadpan explanation of them stowing away after the Murder of Gonzago:
PLAYER: Our play offended the King. Well, he’s a second husband himself. Tactless, really.
Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius all have to be played po-faced straight to make it work, and they are.
In the last act, Rosencrantz says, “I can’t think of anything original. I’m only good at support.” Thereby hangs a major issue in the play. In the programme, Stoppard is reported as having joked that he wanted Morecambe and Wise in the roles. Pete and Dud (Peter Cook & Dudley Moore) would be a slightly later, but better model for the duo. The trouble is, they’re scripted as tightly as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot which is clearly the other model the play is pastiching? Emulating? Lampooning? Imitating? So like Vladimir and Estragon, absolutely exactly like Vladimir and Estragon in fact, they’re also scripted so tightly as to come across as somewhat stilted. Did the Stoppard of 1966 not realise that all these great comic duos improvise around a series of set lines? They corpse each other, surprise each other, change direction if they get a better idea. That’s why Rosencrantz and Guildenstern never came across to me as a great comic duo, in spite of the acting talent being expended. But maybe that’s how he intends them to come across. It is stated clearly. They can’t be original. They’re support.
This is why in comedy terms, Pozzo, sorry, The Player, steals every scene he appears in. Again, maybe that’s the theatrical intent. It’s a wildly meatier part in the writing, and David Haig brings enough of himself into it to tower over every second he’s on stage.
I was bored quite a bit of the time he was off stage with his motley band. I did lights on Waiting for Godot enough times for the feeling to be familiar. You can’t have so many patches of boredom and award it more than three stars.
ROSENCRANTZ: I feel like a spectator – an appalling prospect. The only thing that makes it bearable is the irrational belief that somebody interesting will come on in a minute …
That’s just how I felt too. Yes, like both Arcadia and Travesties, I admit that I found it pretentious. If you don’t have a passing knowledge of Hamlet, I can’t see it would make any sense at all. That is elitism. OK, nowadays all kids are exposed to some Shakespeare, but one of them might not be Hamlet. In 1966 when this was written, exposure to Shakespeare was grammar school, GCE top stream at a secondary school or private school. But I guess the oiks then, as in so many fields, we’re not considered relevant. I am fully aware that pointing out the elitism of theatre is akin to mentioning the Catholocism of popes. The play is not as fascinating as the even more elitist Travesties either, but far better than Arcadia
The Daniel Radcliffe factor achieved a younger audience and rapturous applause, though snogging in front of you is almost as distracting as the snoring one suffers with an older audience. I guess it’s healthier, and it was just the one couple. Yes, Radcliffe is a fine and subtle actor, and very willing to submit to being the straight man to Joshua McGuire’s livelier and funnier role. However, the Old Vic is a big theatre, and we were in the Lower Circle, but just three rows back. McGuire was crystal clear, Haig boomed round the room, we could hear the characters in Hamlet, but Radcliffe might, er, speak up a tad. Yes, the play made its name and Stoppard’s too, at the same large location fifty years ago, but all those duo scenes would work so much better in a more intimate space, like the Donmar or the Minerva or the Menier, or even the Wanamaker (it has Shakespeare connections after all).
H.D. Herneman cartoon, Private Eye #1438, 24 February – 9th March 2017 (Also reproduced in the Travesties review)
It figures that a play on the nature of theatrical reality, with its beautifully over the top Theatricals (The players) contrasted with the bemused supporting roles of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will be well reviewed. It also has subjects like death … sorry Death … or DEATH … to give it meat. I found it well-directed, and organised. Excellent set and staging. I felt it creaked a little with age, and I reveal more about myself by awarding The Play That Goes Wrong five stars last week, and this a mere three. I fear Quentin Letts pins it in the Daily Mail:
It is highbrow dialogue, packed with philosophy and riffs on probability that reek of undergraduate look-at-me intellectualism.
Letts gives it an against-the-current three stars. I agree, but David Haig deserves a personal full five.
WHAT THE PAPERS SAID
Michael Billington, Guardian ****
Domenic Cavendish, Telegraph ****
Susannah Clap, Observer ****
Ian Shuttleworth, Financial Times, ****
Anne Treneman, The Times ****
Mark Shenton, The Stage ****
Sarah Crompton, What’s On Stage ****
Henry Hitchings, Evening Standard ****
Quentin Letts, Daily Mail ***
Andrzej Lukowski, Time Out ***
LINKS ON THIS BLOG
The Cripple of Inishmaan, Grandage Season, 2013
King Lear, Bath Theatre Royal, 2013
Richard II, Globe 2015