Friday, 14 April 2017

'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' at The Old Vic

I've known about the play 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead' by Tom Stoppard for almost as long as I've known about 'Hamlet'. My old English teacher, Mrs Bowen, told us about it while teaching us about 'Hamlet' at 'A' level and encouraging us to read and think critically about what we read.  But I never read 'Rosencrantz' and I've never seen it performed so it was, of course, on the list of things to see when it was announced that it would celebrate it's 50th anniversary at The Old Vic.

The fact that it would star Daniel Radcliffe would be a minor distraction since it would mean the Harry Potter fans would be out in force to see their hero. I've seen Daniel on stage before, in 'Equus' years ago when he was much younger and in 'How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying' on Broadway. He was ok in both, better at singing than dancing (I recall he always seemed to be surrounded by dancers in dance numbers, never out front leading) so what would he be like in a play with the endless words of Tom Stoppard? In a sense he's already won by returning to the London stage in a 'big' play that carries expectations and he's not afraid of the risk.

So. Back to the story. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are friends of Hamlet from university in the Shakespeare play 'Hamlet'. They are summoned to Elsinore to find out what's really wrong with Hamlet and then, later, escort him to England where he is supposed to be killed by the tributory English. They're only in a few small scenes and have few lines, so they're very minor characters and that's where the interest is in this play - what are they doing, saying, thinking when they're not on stage? do they understand the political intrigue they've fallen into? and what really happens to them?

A third main character in this play is also a relatively minor character in 'Hamlet' although of much greater importance, the Player, whose company of actors puts on the play within the play in 'Hamlet' to prick the conscience of the king. After that risky play, the Player and his troupe are no longer welcome in Elsinore and so must leave, oddly on the same ship as the young men use to travel to England. The Player meets up with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern at various places on the journey to and from Elsinore and keeps popping up during the play.

The main parts are taken by Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz, Joshua McGuire as Gildenstern and David Haig as the Player. Joshua McGuire is the gobby one and gets the lions share of the lines between the two friends - will he ever shut up? They make a really good fist of it and seem to have developed a good rapport and partnership but I must save my kudos for David Haig. Haig has, for seeming decades played the part of a middle aged man slowly fraying at the edges and going off in mad manic panics - he's played that role so often that that's how I think of him. He even played an Edwardian shop-keeper like that in the worst play I've ever seen a decade or so ago (don't ask, please, it's still a painful memory). But he fully redeemed himself in this play and easily outshone the rest of the cast. One minute playing an Actor (with a capital 'A'), the next a pimp, the next a cockerney pirate and then a dead man (not really since he comes back to life). That was a very impressive performance and almost - but not quite - wipes the slate clean.

The simple staging worked well and I liked the lighting, always subtle and helping to focus attention where it needed to be. This will do no harm to anyone's career and seems to be going down well with critics and audiences alike and its run has been extended into May so there are still plenty of opportunities to see it if you can get tickets.

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