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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (review)

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

TOM Stoppard’s tragicomedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, is the second production in Trevor Nunn’s season as Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket Company and, coming as it does after his acclaimed revival of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path, it has a great deal to live up to.

So, how does this new production fare and who are the eponymous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (hereafter referred to simply as R & G)?

To answer the second question first, R & G are two minor characters in Hamlet; so minor, in fact, that all they ever do is flit about in the background before eventually being executed.

However, for the purposes of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Stoppard has defied Shakespeare and made them the whole point of the drama, thereby relegating Hamlet and Co to supporting roles and promoting R & G to star status.

As the two young men speculate about life and death, occasionally “straying into areas of philosophical, mathematical and astronomical notions that Shakespeare was unaware of” (Trevor Nunn talking to The Sunday Times) they are unwittingly caught up in the tragedy that is Hamlet, while never really understanding what exactly is going on. Even when the end becomes painfully clear, there is no escaping it, which leads Guildenstein to ponder the enigma that is freewill or predestination.

As R & G, Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker undoubtedly shine. They quite simply light up the stage with their quick repartee and engaging manner. And believe me these are no easy roles to master – the script is long and convoluted and demands that they appear as two halves of a whole (in much the same way as Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot) and this they do with consummate ease. These are performances that should certainly not be overlooked when the next awards season comes round.

Also helping things along and providing additional humour, are The Player and his motley band of Tragedians. Although the role of The Player originally went to Tim Curry – he was forced to withdraw from the Chichester production due to health problems – understudy Chris Andrew Mellon has stepped in and made it his own. Larger than life and with a codpiece to match, he can certainly give La Bête‘s Valere a run for his money.

Fotini Dimou’s costumes, particularly those of the queen and her women courtiers, are beautiful, while those of R & G are deliberately ambiguous, neither totally Elizabethan nor completely modern. And Simon Higlett’s set is relatively simply though no less effective for that. In fact, in one very amusing instance, it proves that even in total darkness, voices alone can paint a picture ( and no, it has nothing to do with sex).

So, for my first question: how does this new production fare? I’d say very well indeed although I have to admit, I wasn’t totally convinced at the start. However, by the time the carnage at Elsinore was revealed, I was totally hooked. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead may be about death but it’s also very funny and it’s certainly very different, all of which makes a trip into town well worthwhile.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead Gallery

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is booking at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until August 20, 2011.

Read more about the production