Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Old Vic

The first forty or so minutes so this really drag. I mean, really drag. Of course, the point of several scenes in the play is that they drag. A lot of the play is a kind of static travelling, a waiting game. Normally I’d only say this about a Shakespeare play, but I wish I had googled the plot beforehand. All I knew was that it was about two actors backstage during a production of Hamlet, which is only a tiny part of what this play is actually about (this sounds like I’m a purist who’s really against anything that isn’t Noel Coward but I promise I’m not).

I asked a friend what he thought the play was about and he said: stripping back the central themes of Hamlet to just leave us with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Which is, again, a tiny part of what it’s about. But it’s also so much more. This is what I think it’s about:

Two actors. Two actors warming up. Two actors getting into their roles. Two actors trying to become the characters. Or the actual characters? The characters trying to reconstruct their past. How did they get here? Did that really happen? What are the chances? Hamlet fanfic or a critical response to the most famous play in the western canon? Parody of or a comment on? Travelling or static? Heads or tails? Life or death? Acting or reality? Dead or alive? Dress rehearsal or the real thing? Holiday or exile? Onstage or off? Rosencrantz or Guildenstern?

Once I got into it, I really got into it. The only things in this play that aren’t ambiguities are the jokes. And they’re really good. Stoppard’s text is pithy and very aesthetic. The fact that the actors were wearing the kind of costumes you see at the Globe and the way the play riffed off Shakespeare made me regret not reading it sooner. The whole essence of this play is one of the most aesthetic ideas ever. And, to be fair to the fact that Stoppard isn’t quite as radical as it could be, the play was written in the 60s (it feels younger).

But that’s Stoppard’s text. And this is a production of the text. I’m not exactly sure what this production does that’s unique or insightful. It’s basically a high-budget production of the text, with some good acting thrown in, not just by Radcliffe, but especially by McGuire and Haig. The set is aesthetically beautiful but realistically could be the set of any play (with the exception of the curtain, basically the only original element of this production). But none of it really matters because the text is so brilliant. And at the end of the play I still didn’t know which of Radcliffe and McGuire was Rosencrantz and which was Guildenstern. Which is the point.

I used to see problems in writing plays with loads of intertextualities with Shakespeare’s plays, mainly rooted in Red Velvet and Mr Foote’s Other Leg. That’s because new plays based on Shakespeare tend to be divisive. If you don’t know the Shakespeare plays these new plays are based, there are references you can’t get, and in extreme cases, like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the plot and essence of the play are incomprehensible if you haven’t read Hamlet. If you don’t know Hamlet you won’t get this. But it’s worth it for something of this magnitude.

I’ve given up on doing a ‘favourite line’ thing at the end of each review. Instead, I’m going to do a quick evaluation of whether the play I’m reviewing passes the Bechdel test. So, if you didn’t know, a play/TV show/film/book that passes the Bechdel test is one in which two named female characters talk to each other about something other than a man. Also interesting to consider is whether the females’ storylines only there to support the storylines of male characters, and whether there are two non-white characters among the principles. Sidenote: I was shocked to realise that only five of my top ten plays of 2016 passes the Bechdel test, and only one of those is in my top five.

R and G are dead fails the Bechdel test in two out of three categories. It doesn’t matter that Hamlet fails the Bechdel test too, because Stoppard is effectively rewriting Hamlet. He could do anything. But Ophelia and Gertrude effectively remain nothing more than they are in Shakespeare’s play, plus their lines and stage time are minimised. Some of the players are female in this production but they have little to no lines.

EDIT: I’ve since changed my mind about the set of this. I think it’s pretty good. The idea of stretching into nothingness really works for this play. I stand by what I said about the direction: as a production of the play, it’s 5 out of 5, but the nature of Stoppard’s play makes it impossible for a director to offer a fresh perspective on it. There’s so much going on in the play that you can’t do any more.

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David Haig as the Player, with members of the company
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