‘Almost everybody thinks of himself as a nobody. A cipher, not a cog.’ These are the nullifying, yet somewhat pertinent, words of playwright Tom Stoppard when discussing the mentality behind the incredible spectacle that is ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’.
With a title taken from a line that is easily overlooked in the chaos of the final act of Hamlet, Stoppard ingenuously creates the world ‘off-stage’ in which these minor characters become the protagonists, keeping away from Hamlet’s overshadowing presence as well as the prying eyes of the audience.
Director David Leveaux has brought Stoppard’s play to the Old Vic in a production that simultaneously embraces both the absurdity and the inescapable naturalism of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’. Confronted with an optical illusion of a set, from the offset one is made to feel that there may be more to this play than meets the eye. A warped sky of pink clouds arcs over the stage and down the back, forcing one to ponder whether eternity itself might have been encompassed on The Cut in Waterloo.
In contrast to this, Rosencrantz (Daniel Radcliffe), and Guildenstern (Joshua McGuire) are two of the most human characters imaginable and very much of this world. Radcliffe plays Rosencrantz with an endearing earnestness, whilst McGuire captures Guildenstern’s pseudo-intellectualism beautifully. The two actors manage to create the changing dynamic of the duo wonderfully, with moments when Guildenstern might just be dominant overtaken with tender intimacy and care for each other, but never too much.
This production just keeps giving with the Players’ arrival in the opening act. There is an unsettling idiosyncrasy when vibrantly-clad actors enter, marshalling themselves in with twisted and dark sounding circus music. With as much pretension as possible they proceed for the duration of the show to pop up at opportune moments and bring a mixture of joy and stark humour. The costumes demand a mention; brightly coloured facial hair compliments furs, silks and gowns, which could be modern or seventeenth century all at the same time.
The characters of Hamlet itself are masterfully done. Leaving you questioning whether they are worth the reverence they are given – exactly what Stoppard was going for with his play. Without detracting from Shakespeare’s tragedy, they execute the caricatures they have developed in the past few centuries with as little depth as necessary, but plenty of humour.
All in all, this production is aesthetically spectacular. It gives just enough emotion to be profound and as little depth as it needs to provide easy laughs as well as satisfying complications. I would say, without hesitation, that Stoppard has been done justice by Leveaux et al.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is playing at the Old Vic until April 29.
Photo: Tristram Kenton