It's that Smart Alec air, the over-use of wordplay and punning which wears me down; I feel I want to yell back at the stage "Yes I get it, English is your adopted language - now stop the bloody barrage!". So you can imagine that it was with a heavy heart that I sat down to watch his first big success ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD now revived at the Old Vic, the very theatre where it made it's London debut 50 years ago staged by Olivier's National Theatre.
Stoppard's megamix of WAITING FOR GODOT and HAMLET muses on what happens to Rosencrantz and Guldenstern - Hamlet's university friends invited to Elsinore to spy on him by Claudius - when they are offstage. They sit and wait for Hamlet, Claudius and Polonius to update them on what is happening - they chat, they bicker, they play question-and-answer games, they guess at what's going on but even when they are told by Claudius to actually do something - to find what Hamlet has done with Polonius' body - they don't do anything. Finally they get to do something when they escort Hamlet to England... but as we know, this doesn't end well...
Stoppard's clever trick is to use the actual Shakespeare text for the scenes from HAMLET but uses vernacular in the scenes between the two friends as well as their scenes with The Player, the leader of the troupe of actors so beloved by Hamlet. The Player gives David Haig the chance to be as splenetic as ever but also to investigate Stoppard's musings on the permanence of death and the pretense of performing. Who better to muse on death than the actor who has to die convincingly?
Maguire and Radcliffe make a good double-act, the former obviously the more dominant of the two as he gets so easily exasperated at Radcliffe's sweetly naive Rosencrantz. But under the comedy wordplay they also suggest a sadness and pathos of two lost souls caught up in a situation not of their making and although not aware of it, totally in over their heads. As I said above, this really does showcase how good Radcliffe is now as a stage actor - EQUUS and HOW TO SUCCEED IN BUSINESS.. showed him to be a charismatic performer but those early performances had an air of trying too hard, here he seems relaxed on stage which helps the comedy.
The excellent performances of the three lead actors is matched by a fine supporting cast; it was interesting seeing this so soon after the Almeida Theatre production of HAMLET and it must be said that the performances of Luke Mullins as Hamlet, William Chubb as Polonius and Helena Wilson as Ophelia are as good as anything seen in a standard production of Shakespeare's play.
As I said David Leveaux' production has a nimbleness that only slightly becomes becalmed as the play comes to an end but overall it kept one engaged in not just the dizzying wordplay but the action both offstage and on. The non-specific set by Anna Fleischle and lighting by Howard Harrison also contribute greatly to the overall enjoyment to be had.
It has just been announced that ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD has been extended at the Old Vic to May 6th - this production is thoroughly recommended both for a good laugh but also for the arguments which linger in the mind after.