Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Tom Stoppard
A Chichester Festival Theatre Production in association with Theatre Royal Haymarket
Chichester Festival Theatre
(2011)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead production photo

Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead turns Shakespeare’s Hamlet inside-out and upside-down as it elevates two minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, to leading roles while reducing the original leads to bit parts. In a confusing mixture of time, space, existentialist philosophy and trying to make sense of a confusing world, could it be holding up a mirror to our own lives in Alice in Wonderland style? The play is still Hamlet, but seen through the eyes of these two it becomes their story, even though they have no idea just what is going on.

The suggestion of stepping into another parallel existence is emphasized from the pitch black beginning with eerie music creating an atmosphere of mystery as two pale faces gradually emerge from the gloom and our heroes are revealed waiting for something to happen, for someone to give them directions, and they pass the time by flipping coins which consistently land heads-up. Could this be pure chance, divine intervention, or fate playing a strange game? The two boys playing the leads, Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker, are absolutely amazing - a true tour-de-force double act reminiscent of Ant and Dec but with a much better script and very extensive and complicated dialogue, and they carry the play with a professionalism and confidence which seem perfectly natural and unforced. Most famous for their roles in The History Boys on stage and screen, here their quick-fire repartee and rhythm of speech are outstanding.

Simon Higlett has set the scene on a deceptively simple bare stage with a single leafless tree, changing almost unnoticed to a backdrop ingeniously appearing to be a very solid series of vaulted passages from where the Hamlet characters appear, later changing to on board ship. Paul Groothuis takes us there in surround sound with whistling wind, creaking timbers and seagulls, merging with the slapping of waves. I could almost taste the salt.

It is on the way to (or is it from?) this castle of Elsinore that the pair meet a band of strolling players, a desperate group of actors - “We’re the opposite of people” - who will do almost anything for an audience. Tim Curry was to be The Player, but unfortunately had to pull out due to ill health and the role was taken up at short notice and very successfully by Chris Andrew Mellon who gave it his all in very much the Curry style.

Trevor Nunn keeps the pace moving swiftly along, and the the writing is absurdly witty and intriguing, but just the same the three hour length stretched concentration a little too far.

The question is - do we regard this play as simply a very clever and surreal comedy making fun of the two hapless characters who drift, bewildered and resigned, through a story they don’t totally understand? “There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said ‘no’,” says Guildenstern, “but somehow we missed it.” Or perhaps we should regard it as warning of what might happen if we drift through life without taking charge of our own destiny, but then do we have a choice? You decide.

Philip Fisher reviewed this production on its transfer to the Theatre Royal, Haymarket

Reviewer: Sheila Connor