Having to write about a play can spoil watching it. Many a schoolchild has been put off Hamlet, trying to fathom out what happens, conscious they will be examined on it. It’s a relief to find that in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, the characters are in the same situation; baffled by the unfolding plot and their role in it, their predicament creates a special affinity with the audience.
Tom Stoppard, of course, knows exactly what is going on, in his hands we never feel too scared – just highly entertained. Stoppard’s first masterpiece, from 1965, Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, doesn’t feel dated in the slightest – its intelligent humour shines forth. Seeing the events in Hamlet unfold via once minor, now major characters, we are introduced to the theme of free will, with speculation on aesthetics, and dazzling verbal badinage.
Stoppard’s dexterous writing is well served in director Trevor Nunn’s superb production. Having missed out on the chance to direct the plays premiere, Nunn relishes the opportunity now. There is an appropriate exuberance in his direction that does him credit.
Arriving from the Chichester Festival the production is already polished. The Players that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter make a convincing ensemble of tatterdemalions. Times are tough for performers, they will “stoop to anything” to entertain, and as their leader Chris Andrew Mellon conquers, hilariously guiding our heroes around the artifice of the world they are trapped in.
In the lead roles, Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker, the one-time History Boys, are reunited, and this duo needs no lessons in comedy. Parker explains their predicament marvellously: seeking logic and justice in the theatre, fate means they are condemned to “death followed by eternity”, with their roles puzzled over forever more. But Barnett literally runs rings around his colleague, getting every laugh going and showing that Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is a very lively affair indeed.
Until 20 August 2011
Photo by Catherine Ashmore
Written 22 June 2011 for The London Magazine