Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Theatre Royal Haymarket

This is a Trevor Nunn production of the play written by Tom Stoppard in the 1960s starring Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker, two ‘graduates’ from playing in Bennett’s ‘The History Boys’.

The play is an absurdist retelling of ‘Hamlet’ through the eyes of two of the minor characters, who spend their time on stage trying to work out, mostly unsuccessfully, what’s going on.  Hamlet is seen coming and going, launching into the first lines of his soliloquies as he leaves the stage.

It’s an interesting conceit, that we are all the major players in our own stories, even while we are on the edge as much greater events play out before us, but it felt very thinly stretched over the near three hours of the play.

Sitting in a not comfortable seat enough in the theatre, I had the same thought I always have when watching a Stoppard play.

Why doesn’t anyone say ‘We get the point Tom, no need to keep going on about it.  Let’s move on……..Cut.’

The verbal trickery is all very well, and gives the two leads an opportunity to show off their tremendous verbal facility, but it goes on for ever such a long time, to no particular point.

This production has done everything it can to squeeze every last bit of symbolism out of it.  In the opening scene the actors faces are the only things illuminated for several seconds before the stage, bare apart from a leafless tree, is revealed.  The allusion to ‘Waiting for Godot’ is immediately clear and striking, but ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’ does not fare well out of the comparison.

For all its reputation as a break through play in its subversion of Shakespeare and the manipulation of the intertextuality so loved in the 60s and 70s, now this looks like quite an old fashioned play, with a huge cast, who are largely wasted; there were moments when I wondered if it had really been worth their while getting all dressed up in the gold brocades of their lavish looking costumes.

The only reasons to see this play are the central performances by the leads, who indeed are, as the poster promises ‘brilliant and engaging’.  I hope they find a better play soon.

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