Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead – May 2011

Experience: 6/10

By Tom Stoppard

Directed by Trevor Nunn

Venue: Chichester Festival Theatre

Date: Thursday 26th May 2011

I’ve usually found Tom Stoppard’s work a bit cerebral for my taste, and this play was no exception. There are some good bits, and this is likely to be a very good production once it’s settled in, but I wouldn’t say it was one of my favourites.

Tonight’s performance had a ripple of understudies due to the indisposition of Tim Curry, so although I didn’t detect any significant fluffs, future performances are bound to come on a lot. I didn’t catch all the understudy names, and it was too recent a change for printed slips in the program, but I gather that the part of The Player was taken by Chris Andrew Mellon.[Oops, we’ve since found the insert – Chris Andrew Mellon confirmed, and his role as Player King taken by Stephen Pallister 3/6/11] Since they haven’t yet had their understudies run, the audience was suitably appreciative of his efforts, and he managed the part really well, getting across the swagger and bluster, and doing a particularly good death scene, I thought. All the best to Tim Curry, of course, for his recovery.

The set was quite beautiful, one of Simon Higlett’s best. The floor of the stage was covered in glossy black boards which followed the stage’s shape apart from two triangular cut-outs, one on each side, giving the overall effect of an arrow head. Above this was a similarly shaped layer of black boards, but with gaps, like a pergola. The back wall and surround were full of stars for the outdoor night scenes, and the central rear doors were flanked by two concealed doorways with false perspective arches, which gave a fantastic impression of a vast castle.

At the start, there was a tree centre back; this was removed when the players arrived with their cart (very Mother Courage), but it was done so well that I just didn’t spot it. After the players leave, R&G are transported straight to the castle, so the arches are on show for a major chunk of the play. There’s some set dressing for The Murder Of Gonzago – this time we’re seeing the dress rehearsal – which was mainly four tall candle holders, a rug and two small chests.

Once off to sea, part of a ship and three barrels are carefully positioned on the stage. The ship has an upper deck with a deckchair, screened by a large umbrella; it turns out that Hamlet has been snoozing there through the start of this scene. The barrels are large, which is just as well, as the players, scared by the hostile reception of their play at court, have stowed away by hiding in them. One of the best bits tonight was watching them all clamber out.

After the ship scene, I think the set was bare till near the end, when some of the Gonzago trimmings were brought back on for the very end of Hamlet itself, when the ambassadors from England have arrived to report that R&G are dead.

The play is certainly interesting, taking a sideways look at these two minor characters as they wend their short path through this famous play, and bringing up many philosophical ideas along the way. It’s those philosophical bits that tend to drag, in my view. It may be that Jamie Parker as Guildenstern (or was it Rosencrantz?) will find a delivery that brings out more humour in those lines, but I suspect they would be a bit dry for me regardless. Samuel Barnett as Rosencrantz (or ………?) was more down to earth, stupider and generally had the funnier lines, and his was the more assured performance at this point in the run. The constant coin tossing had some humour, though it went on a bit long, and the players were good fun, though also a bit long winded. I enjoyed the mathematical joke of the bet – that a date of birth, doubled, will be even – and it shows how wide-ranging this content of this play is.

With their arrival at Elsinore, the actual Shakespearean dialogue makes an appearance, and it’s to Stoppard’s credit that he manages to blend the two styles so well. Many another writer has incorporated chunks of Will’s work into theirs, only to show up their own inadequacies; Stoppard holds his own just fine, and although I wasn’t totally loving this, I didn’t find myself wishing I was watching Hamlet instead, a good sign. (Mind you, I did wonder if the actors having a go at a partial Hamlet were wishing they could do the full version.)

The dress rehearsal was nicely done, adapting the snippet we see in the regular version into a reprise of the Hamlet plot, with two new characters, looking uncannily like R&G, involved in this one. We even get to see the executions in England. R&G are troubled by the similarities for a while, especially when their doubles take off their capes and their costumes are so similar to the original R&G’s, but the pair soon reassure themselves that all is well.

There’s a string of pearls used in this section – I think it was presented by the usurping king to the widowed queen to persuade her to marry him – and tonight the string broke, scattering pearls everywhere. Presumably this was not meant to happen. The actors soon cleared up most of them, but a stray pearl travelled further than the rest, and it was Rosencrantz who did the honours and removed it in passing.

When the duplicate R&G’s are killed, and their capes placed over them, the lights go down – it’s after Claudius has stormed off – and when they come back up, it’s the ‘real’ R&G who are under the capes. These two are on stage all the time, with the action of Hamlet coming to them, so they can’t actually go anywhere to search for Hamlet, leading to an entertaining scene where they opt to go in different directions, then together, then one way, then another. There’s a short scene on the beach, where Hamlet encounters Fortinbras’s men, and then they’re on the boat. When Hamlet is saying his soliloquies, by the way, he has a tendency to drift to the back of the stage and mutter to himself.

In the process of figuring out what they’re going to say when they get to the English court, R&G role play that encounter, and as a result they open the letter and find out that Hamlet is to be killed. Much consternation. Then they go to sleep, Hamlet sneaks down from his deckchair and swaps the letters, and they’re on their way to oblivion.  The players emerge from the barrels, the pirates attack, and Hamlet disappears with them, leaving R&G with nobody to present to the king of England, so they redo the role play to get some ideas, open the letter again, and hey presto, they’re now the ones for the chop. That’s pretty much it for these two. We don’t see their executions, and the final scene shows their deaths being reported to the Danish court, or what’s left of it.

The performance showed signs of this being a very good production, once they’ve had time to bed it down. It’s not my ideal kind of play, but I hope it does well here and in the West End.

© 2011 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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