Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead: There ain't half been some clever bastards

Even as I hurtle into middle age, there are still some sizable gaps in the brain loft where my cultural furniture should be.

For instance, I've never listened to a Bob Dylan album or read a Jane Austen novel – not even Pride and Prejudice and Zombies.

There's also a space in the corner where Tom Stoppard ought to be. Even though he's accepted as one of our greatest living playwrights, the only time I'd seen one of his plays prior to last night was the other year's production of Arcadia with Neil Pearson.

However, on that occasion I couldn’t even concentrate on the play because of having to squeeze into what must have been the West End's most agonisingly uncomfortable seats.

Anyway, Trevor Nunn's production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is currently on at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, so we took the opportunity to check out the great man's first major play in a bit more comfort.

As you'd expect from the title, the play follows the tribulations of the eponymous lords as they find themselves dragged into and out of the action of Hamlet.

However, while they certainly provide an alternative view of a sometimes over-familiar classic, it's clear from the outset that something much more rich and strange is going on.

Their uncertainty over who they are and what they're doing suggests they've been breathed into existence purely to fulfil their role in Shakespeare's play.

The famous bit of business with the coin-flipping that always comes up heads becomes a lovely metaphor for the fact that once they've been summoned on their mission to Elsinore, their fate is totally out of their control: they're locked into the fatal sequence of events being played out in the main action of Hamlet.

As Stoppard cites the laws of probability to roll out his argument elegantly, it becomes apparent that the play is actually a much more troubling meditation on the battle between free will and destiny – a conflict that doesn't end well for the two lords.

But as well as tickling the intellect, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is also very funny, as the lads try to deal with the exasperation of their uncertain state of existence and the difficulty of their mission to find out what's ailing Hamlet.

It's easy to spot a couple of theatrical influences on the young Stoppard, but the play is woven into such a rich tapestry of intelligence and wit that it's still a startling and gripping bit of work, with the design, direction and leading performances by former History Boys Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker giving the current production a timeless punch.

I'm looking forward to shipping more stuff into that Stoppard-shaped hole.

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