The Theatreguide.London Review
Guildenstern Are Dead
Old Vic Theatre Spring 2017
With Shakespeare's Hamlet currently playing at the Almeida and Stoppard's Travesties at the Apollo, it seems nicely symmetrical to have Stoppard's inside-out rewriting of Shakespeare at the Old Vic.
The play may be showing its age just a bit, but it is still an almost overpowering razzle-dazzle of thought-provoking ideas, theatrical surprises and unpausing verbal wit.
As everyone but Martians (and the man next to me, who honestly didn't know what sort of play he was about to see) knows, Stoppard took two peripheral characters from Hamlet and set them at the centre of his play, where they try to figure out what's going on, why everyone but them seems to know what's going on, what part they're supposed to play in whatever it is that's going on, and why nobody (including them) seems sure which of them is which.
Questions of why we are here, whether we have free will or are part of some cosmic plan, what role we are meant to play, and whether it might be simpler just to be dead are, of course, big parts of Shakespeare's play.
And it is not least of Stoppard's accomplishments that he sets you thinking about Hamlet in new ways. But that may only be evident on a second viewing or reading.
In performance your strongest impression is of the unstoppable torrent of ideas, jokes and wordplay that Stoppard throws at us.
Random sample: explaining that being on a boat is somehow comforting because at least you're going someplace, one says 'You can't not-be on a boat.' To which the reply is 'I've frequently not been on boats.'
(A mental health warning – it is likely that at one or more points your brain will go into cleverness overload, unable to absorb another idea or gag. Bear with it – the moment will pass.)
And that is one of the small ways this fifty-year-old play has dated. Stoppard quickly learned to exercise more control over his incredibly fertile intellect and verbal creativity so that his later plays, like Travesties, don't overwhelm quite so much.
This revival directed by David Leveaux is clearly designed to serve the play rather than imposing any extraneous vision upon it.
Actors Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire exploit every hint the text offers to individualise and differentiate between the two characters, even if no one in the play can.
McGuire's more aware and questioning Guildenstern repeatedly works himself up to the edge of panic by trying to make sense out of things, while Radcliffe's dimmer Rosencrantz is so accustomed to never really knowing what's going on that he only occasionally finds this particular situation particularly scary.
The rest of the cast is made up of Shakespeare's characters, now comically pushed to the fringes of the action or offstage entirely.
The one exception is the Player, leader of the travelling actors who play before the king. Stoppard makes him the opposite counterpart to Ros and Guil, totally at ease with ambiguity, role-playing and being simultaneously independent and part of a larger plot because that's what he does for a living.
David Haig, who is always the best thing in any production he's in, follows his usual pattern as an actor by effortlessly stealing every scene as this suavely sinister figure whose ambiguity – is he trying to help them or laughing at them? - adds yet another layer to the play's intellectual complexity.
(Actually, the Player is not a typical David Haig role, giving him little opportunity to employ his signature comic frustration. But that is an additional delight for those who know this protean actor, the discovery of new ways he can be the best thing in a show.)
R And G Are Dead is very funny. It is at times very sad. It is very intellectually stimulating. It is the occasion for some excellent acting.
And if at moments you may feel that there is too much of a muchness about it, that's surely better than too little.
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