The Theatreguide.London Review
Guildenstern Are Dead
Haymarket Theatre Summer 2011
Although it wasn't actually his first play, R&G was Tom Stoppard's first London production, and he couldn't have had a more exciting and impressive debut. And this revival directed by Trevor Nunn (who reminds us in a rueful programme note that he just missed the opportunity of introducing it to the world in 1965) fully demonstrates what an extraordinary play it is.
Looking at Shakespeare's Hamlet from the point of view of two peripheral characters was a brilliant idea in itself, but giving them a mid-twentieth century sensibility added layers of resonance and meaning that quickly elevated the play from momentary sensation to modern classic.
And dressing it all in what we would come to recognise as Stoppard's unique facility with humour, word play and general verbal razzle-dazzle produced a dark comedy that makes us laugh so much that we may not even realise that we're also thinking seriously about free will, identity, reality and illusion, the meaning of death and other quite deep (and quite Shakespearean and Hamlet-ian) philosophical concepts.
Hamlet's two school friends spend this play watching Shakespeare's tragedy unfold around them without the slightest idea of what's going on, what role they're supposed to be playing in it, whether they have any choice but to follow the script everybody but them seems to have read, and why nobody can tell them apart.
From the opening scene, in which tossed coins come up heads more than 90 times in a row, they sense that they are in something well beyond their understanding, and vacillate between trying to make sense of it all, trying to rebel against it all, trying not to think about it all, and just going with the flow – in short, they have the same nightmarish thoughts that every thinking person of our era has, at least once in a while.
And a lot of this is very, very funny – not just in the constant stream of one- and two-liners, but in the ways metaphysical concepts get twisted or turned on their heads.
Frustrated by the fact that everyone else seems to know what's going on, Rosencrantz decides to do something unpredictable just to screw up their plan, until Guildenstern suggests that they might be planning on his doing it.
Later, Guildenstern tries to explain that being on a boat gives some comfort because it's going someplace and therefore you know you're going someplace – 'you can't not-be on a boat' – to which Rosencrantz innocently replies 'I've frequently not been on a boat.'
Those are good gags, but they also leave you stuck with the underlying thoughts.
Trevor Nunn cleverly realises that if you play the humanity and the comedy, the philosophy will come along without having to be underscored, and he has directed his cast to play this much as they might an Alan Ayckbourn play – that is, as a comedy built on real, feeling human characters.
Samuel Barnett captures all the innocent charm of the not-very-bright Rosencrantz, making his moments of mounting panic all the more touching because we've been laughing warmly at him a moment earlier.
Jamie Parker begins poorly as Guildenstern, with a too-plummy delivery whose music threatens to turn his speech into gibberish, and with an air that is sometimes more camp than the Player's, but he settles down as his more intellectual character begins to face the issues his simpler companion had intuited.
I don't know their relative ages, but Parker looks older than Barnett, and plays Guildenstern as avuncular and tutorial while Barnett makes Rosencrantz more boyish and dependent, giving a warm and believable shape to their relationship.
Chris Andrew Mellon brings a hint of Simon Callow to the flamboyant Player, whose long experience of moving between reality and fantasy makes him more at home with uncertainty, and could profitably be even more over-the-top – not just for the fun of it, but to separate him further from R&G.
Schoolkids study this play alongside Hamlet now, but chances are that they don't get from reading it how very funny it is and how sympathetic the two main characters become as their philosophical and metaphysical questions become ours as well.
There may be a better production somewhere in an ideal universe, but this is as fine and full a capturing of the play as you are likely to find in the real world, if that's what this is.
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