Proposition: The works of Tom Stoppard become progressively more irritating the older you become – Discuss. And a syllogism: One) recently I’ve seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Travesties and Arcadia and they were all heavy going. Two) those plays were written by Tom Stoppard in the 60s, 70s and 90s. Conclusion: Stoppard is all mouth and no trousers.
It’s a shame, really it is. I remember how I loved this play with a passion when I was 15. I saw it at the Criterion on a school jaunt, with Christopher Timothy and Richard O’Callaghan as the cipher courtiers. I read it avidly. I marvelled at the wordplay. I was fascinated by Stoppard’s refreshingly innovative themes. I adored (still do) the originality of its structure. What never struck me was the possibility that it was all just too clever-clever and lacked heart. Watching it today, that’s almost the only thing that does strike me. I’m a huge drama fan and I’ve fallen out of love with Tom Stoppard. Woe is me, I am undone. Ecce homo, ergo elk.
Let’s just dwell on that structure again. Somewhere in space and time, the play of Hamlet is taking place. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, friends of Hamlet, although two of the most minor characters of the play, are offstage, because they haven’t had their first cue yet. They have no other purpose in life – not to the play, not to Hamlet (despite allegedly being “friends”), not to themselves. Basically, they just have to sit around, spinning coins, and waiting for something to happen. Eventually the play of Hamlet catches up with them, as Claudius and Gertrude welcome them to the court, with the whole Hamlet scene invading Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s stage. They have their conversation about keeping an eye on how Hamlet’s behaving, and then the king and queen sweep off, signifying that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have left the action of Hamlet, and remain behind to inhabit their own lives for a little while until the next time their and Hamlet’s lives intersect.
Meanwhile the Player King, Hamlet, Polonius, Ophelia and so on drift in and out of R & G’s world as Shakespeare’s plot develops, even though R & G’s involvement doesn’t. Eventually they get given a job to do – to accompany Hamlet to England (and to his intended death). Students of the Bard have argued for centuries whether Rosencrantz and Guildenstern knew that they were escorting Hamlet off this mortal coil, or whether they were also innocents abroad. Stoppard makes it crystal clear that R & G were the fall guys, as we see Hamlet return to Denmark, but they do not (dead, see.) It’s an incredibly clever piece of writing – the linguistic representation of some mathematic genius. And you do, indeed, feel sorry for our antiheroes, caught up in a web of international intrigue, when all they’re really any good for is spinning coins.
For the illusion of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to work, you have to believe absolutely in the concept of the two parallel plays taking place at the same time and how they interweave at those dangerous corners. Therefore, it’s vital that you believe unquestioningly in the stage dominance of Claudius and Gertrude. In Hamlet, they control proceedings alongside the eponymous hero. Sadly, in this production, I found that Wil Johnson’s Claudius, in particular, had an element of pantomime about him, and I couldn’t see him as this strong, villainous, murdering king. Diminish the power of the Hamlet element to this play and you diminish the play as a whole. Similarly, Luke Mullins’ Hamlet was for me a little too jocular, a little too stagey. I didn’t get the sense of his troubled soul; and without it, R & G are even more pointless than they are in the first place.
And then you have the Player King and his entourage: David Haig in full declamatory mode, puffing up the character’s already considerable sense of self-importance, mortally wounded to have lost their audience participation at their first encounter, idly taking mild sexual advantage of the young tragedian Alfred. It’s not an easy role to get the tone absolutely right; and I did find the character a little more monotonous than when I remembered it, or imagine it in my mind’s eye. It wasn’t helped by those travelling tragedians; although their performance was probably exactly how those roving casts used to appear, I still found the sight (and sound) of them rather wearing. I found it all rather laid on with a trowel and could have appreciated something a little subtler. As I said, I’ve fallen out of love with Stoppard.
That’s not to say there aren’t elements of the production that weren’t highly entertaining. The moment, for example, when our two courtiers attempt to force Hamlet to drag Polonius’ body into their “trap” is simple and extremely funny. Perhaps wisely, they don’t follow Stoppard’s original stage direction of having Rosencrantz’ trousers fall down whilst he’s removed his belt. The scene where it appears that Guildenstern has murdered the Player King is incredibly effective. But there aren’t many moments of physical humour to alleviate the burden of the cerebral nature of the nub of the play.
That said, none of this prevents me from appreciating the two excellent performances from Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. As Rosencrantz, Mr Radcliffe absolutely nails the introvert intensity of the character; slow to respond and react, keeping his own counsel, simply saying what he sees rather than what he thinks. As the complete opposite, Mr McGuire is perfect as Guildenstern’s extrovert loose cannon; flying off the handle, panicking loudly, trying to understand the whys and wherefores of the situation in which they find themselves. As the characters almost present themselves as two halves of one whole, the intricate dovetailing of their speeches and stage business is done with immaculate accuracy and a beautiful lightness of touch. This is the third time we’ve seen both actors on stage (Mr Radcliffe always as a troubled soul – Equus, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Mr McGuire always as a brash nincompoop – Amadeus, The Ruling Class) and they never fail to impress with their superb commitment and artistry. As an acting masterclass, they give a magnificent display.
Mrs Chrisparkle fell almost instantly asleep within the first few minutes of the play as she simply couldn’t keep up with Stoppard’s smartarseness. She awoke when the Player King and his entourage took control of the stage about an hour later. That was the point that I yielded to sleep because I found the characters so irritating. We both enjoyed the final act, after the interval, much more. But I think that all probably says much more about our own inability to put up with Stoppard than the production itself. So, if I return to my original proposition: yes he does. And my syllogism: well, it’s a syllogism, innit.
Production photos by Manuel Harlan