If Kafka did Beckett it would probably be the best Shakespeare in the world. Or something like that.
And that’s pretty much what we seem to have in this realisation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead directed by David Leveaux.
Tom Stoppard’s R&G is deliberately framed on Waiting for Godot, and this production makes certain the references are not missed. The step ladder – standing in for Beckett’s tree – makes it through all three acts from country to court to ship, and is a continuous reminder of Godot, whoever she is.
The simple set allows drapes to contain the action, or lack of it, and provide a screen for rapid scene changes. But in this production the stage is all the world, and all the players merely men and women. This is the ordinary. The hum drum. The inevitable. But at a courtly level and at a furious pace.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are mates, as are their actors Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire respectively in real life. And they are clearly that on stage. The games. The one-upmanship. The petty rows. The serious arguments will all be too familiar to any close friends.
This is an absurdist comic play about those relationships. We are looking in from a different angle on a play we all know very well. And when Polonius addresses the audience in classic ‘old-Shakespearian’ style, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern begin to see that they may be part of a bigger story, with other people watching on, dictating their moves.
Although this is an absurdist, philosophical comedy that doesn’t mean all you get is a knowing, wry humour. There are plenty of laugh out loud moments, and the cast, particularly including David Haig as the impresario actor leading the players within the play (within the play), appear to be having an absolute hoot.
However, there are some serious questions asked. We all know the plot of this play from Hamlet. We know the denouement. That makes the references to death which run throughout even more poignant. Rosencrantz sums this up when he asks “Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death?” But even death can’t hold its sting for long. David Haig’s troupe are able to provide death to order for a guilder or eight. “Deaths for all ages and occasions! Deaths by suspension, convulsion, consumption, incision, execution, asphyxiation and malnutrition! Climatic carnage, by poison and by steel! Double deaths by duel!”
The big difference between this play and Godot, of course, is that even if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have little grasp on what’s happening and no understanding of what lies ahead, we can see it all too clearly. When I see Hamlet (the play, not the character) I have this urge to give the main characters a good shaking and tell them all to pull themselves together. Tonight, Hamlet (the character, not the play) actually seemed self-assured. In command of his own destiny — apart from when he gets killed, of course. It’s poor old Rosencrantz and Guildenstern that need taking out of themselves.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, The Old Vic
8 March 2017