The works of William Shakespeare are amongst the largest and most thematically complex works in any language, and chief amongst them is ‘Hamlet’, a play that has been analysed, debated and pulled apart more than any other theatrical text. In 1966, then emerging writer Tom Stoppard applied a new perspective to the classic play, exploring it from the perspective of two of its minor characters, and in the process offered a new theatrical language with which to discuss Shakespeare and one of the great absurdist plays of all time. This year, ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ celebrated the 50th anniversary of its premiere at the National Theatre in London with a new production featuring Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire in the title roles, making what would already be a major event even more thrilling. This acclaimed production is also one of the highlights in the National Theatre Live season this year, bringing the production to cinema audiences around the world.
Rosencrantz (Radcliffe) and Guildenstern (McGuire) are childhood friends of Hamlet (Luke Mullins), called by the King and Queen of Denmark (Wil Johnson and Marianne Oldham) to attend to him. The problem is, neither is entirely sure what they are supposed to be doing, and as observers find themselves caught up in a narrative they can’t follow, full of questions with few answers and with their motivations and fates taken entirely out of their hands. Their confusion is matched by the presence of a troupe of travelling players, whose leader (David Haig) offers perhaps the only perspective that might allow Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to make sense of it all.
I’d never seen or read Stoppard’s play before, so it was a tremendous treat to be introduced to it with such a beautifully-mounted and energetic production as this, directed by David Leveaux. Stoppard’s text is a mighty piece of work, endlessly complex and confusing in all the right ways, a logical extension of the works of Beckett and Ionesco but with a British wit and sensibility. There are so many ideas in this play that at times you’re frantically trying to keep up with it, but it is constructed (and the production executed) with an awareness of this, running ahead with anarchic abandon before stopping and breathing at exactly the right points to allow its characters to breathe. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are such beautifully constructed characters, and their grappling with the existential nature of ‘Hamlet’ and of their own existence is aided by the fact that their philosophical debates are born out of character rather than forced into the characters. They are the everyman stuck in a play about anything but, caught in the whims of an aristocracy (and a narrative) that doesn’t care about them. Stoppard also plays with questions around character and narrative, both men essentially plot devices given a voice to comment on the story they’re forced to serve and what function they serve, to assist the plot and then die. The same can be said for the Player and his troupe, another plot device in ‘Hamlet’ and group of commoners forced to serve a narrative and social function, instead aware of this and using it to their advantage. There is so much to unpack in this wonderful play, which explains its appeal for the past fifty years.
They are the everyman stuck in a play about anything but, caught in the whims of an aristocracy (and a narrative) that doesn’t care about them.
The production itself is marvellous, beautifully directed and designed, erudite and unobtrusive to the text and the performances. Anna Fleischle and Lauren Elstein’s design is gorgeous in its simplicity, the negative space as dynamic as what is within it, and Corin Buckeridge’s music (performed live by the travelling players themselves) enhances the rough-and-tumble anarchy that Leveaux pulls from the text. Radcliffe and McGuire are an absolute delight as the title characters, individually impressive but all the better for their palpable chemistry. They master Stoppard’s rapid-fire existential text (McGuire, especially), and yet make it feel immediate and easy to connect with. They don’t become enamoured in its cleverness, paying careful attention to the humanity and pathos amidst Stoppard’s words. David Haig is also terrific as the Player, brimming with bombast and sensuality, and Luke Mullins makes for a surprisingly wicked and maniacal Hamlet, the closest thing the play has to an antagonist.
Theatre on film will always inevitably be a fraught venture, but National Theatre Live take advantage of advanced technology and high definition to offer about as great an experience as we can get without being there. Screen director Tim Van Someren does a great job capturing the performance with strong coverage and intelligent editing. Nothing feels lacking and you walk away with a strong impression of how it might have looked in the flesh. It really is a treat that we now have access to these works in Australia, a chance to see great actors perform great texts in top-notch productions. This production of ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’ is all those things, a thoroughly satisfying experience that revels in Tom Stoppard’s great play with healthy dollops of reverence and irreverence in equal measure.