The chance to see something you thought you knew well in an entirely different light is one of the continual draws of theatre. A different performer, a new director, a change of venue can all bring a fresh perspective on well-known plays, and when a production surprises you it can be a forceful experience. In 1966 Tom Stoppard took that idea a step further by not only thinking of a new way to stage Hamlet but by writing a whole new play that shifts the central perspective to its most purposeless characters – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
By a stroke of fortune a version of Hamlet and Stoppard’s comic counterpart, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, are opening in London within a week of each, and after seeing The Almeida’s high quality production of Shakespeare’s original tragedy starring Andrew Scott as the grief-filled and philosophising Dane, a visit to The Old Vic to see David Leveaux’s wonderfully whimsical version of Stoppard’s play starring Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire and David Haig is perfectly timed. Already more than a week into previews and with press night scheduled for tomorrow, this is the best thing The Old Vic has done since The Master Builder this time last year, and is already an absolute joy to watch.
As the play opens Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are waiting for something to happen to them, playing games of chance to pass the time. But they remember that they have been summoned to attend on Claudius, the King of Denmark, who needs them to find out whether their old friend Prince Hamlet is really mad. On the way they meet a grungy group of travelling players also bound for Elsinore but even when the drama erupts around them, the pair are sidelined with no clear purpose. Can they leave, do they have any agency of their own, will they ever reconcile their fears of inevitable death and what will happen when they get to England?
Stoppard’s characters are humorously conscious of their own existence as theatrical devices and this is something Leveaux’s production and Anna Fleischel’s clever fantastical design emphasise really well. More than once Guildenstern tells us their knowledge of Hamlet’s story is as much as the audience is told in Shakespeare’s play and nothing more. So they sit idly by while events occur in other rooms only occasionally crossing their path. They are oblivious to their own part in what’s to come and entirely without individual purpose to deflect what seems an inevitable outcome – almost as though they know they are just characters within their own lives while decisions are made by some unseen hand.
This meta feel to the show is reflected in Fleischel’s set, built out at the front and extending far into the background like a grand studio, a vast cavernous space suggesting how these two little characters are swept-up by larger events. The sliding walls, ceiling and backdrop are painted with clouds in what can only be described as sky-blue pink, it is a place of enchanted unreality, setting the story somewhere that’s not quite real, a whimsical dream that gives them a magical half-life of sorts. Extending the theme, curtains swish in and out to change the scene (and one is printed with a Tudor ship which unknown to Rosencrantz and Guildenstern presages what is to come) and gives their world a feeling of being an elaborate play.
Similarly, the main characters of Hamlet are reduced to extravagant bit parts, as they flounce in and out, dressed in deliberately exaggerated costume like dolls or puppets while only the two leads appear in ‘normal’ doublet and hose. And while the characters are made to look like actors, the players have an otherness about them, with painted white faces and clownish garb, while their leader, the Player King is a grubby figure in a borrowed red military coat and shaggy hair. All of this works beautifully to create a sense of whimsy and unreality but with a dark edge that suits the sense of foreboding that overshadows the play even in its most hilarious moments.
Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire are a perfect pairing as the titular characters, both uniquely drawn while also two halves of the same coin. Radcliffe is developing into a really interesting actor, and someone who likes to make unusual choices that stretch him. Still hugely famous for the Harry Potter series he could easily have coasted in a series of similar high-paid parts, or may well not need to work at all, but instead he has tested himself in diverse roles from a Broadway musical to serious indie films that suggest an actor admirably eager to learn and to pursue work that interests him primarily.
Here as Rosencrantz, Radcliffe gives a fine comic performance and develops a genuine rapport with McGuire as they passively wait for action to occur around them. Rosencrantz is fairly empty-headed, often unable to remember anything for more than a few seconds and with an innocence that makes him pretty credulous, although he surprised us occasionally by being more perceptive than his partner, getting the measure of a situation exactly. Radcliffe subtly presents all of these elements without them becoming tiresome or too overtly goofy in the two hour 30 minute run time, but also adds a streak of frustration when the pair are left alone for long periods at Elsinore showing the audience why their meta-role as a device is difficult for them.
McGuire’s Guildenstern is almost a contrast, always thinking, philosophising and trying to understand their purpose while still failing to develop any purpose of his own, reliant on others to direct them. He takes the lead in most encounters and is more willing to do Claudius’s bidding without question out of respect for the King, but seems the most worn down by their role in events, as McGuire shows how shockingly Guildenstern’s own fate becomes clear. There is a lot of bantering word-play which McGuire and Radcliffe deliver at a considerable pace without losing any of the wit of Stoppard’s script and its clear how hard they’ve worked together to create a relationship that feels genuine with lots of cleverly integrated physical humour that draws a lot of the laughs on the night.
David Haig leads a motley crew as The Player and while in Hamlet they appear as classical and highly-regarded thespians, in Stoppard’s version they are a low rent travelling crew a step away from prostitution – which they appear to also offer. Haig is fantastically grimy as their chief, a bit of a geezer with long straggly hair, tattoos and military coat – always dressed for performance he claims – imagine Danny Dyer doing Poldark with a bit of Arthur Daley thrown in. Haig is clearly having a ball all the time he is on stage and, as always, he almost steals the show whenever he appears, but it’s a performance that fits neatly into the style of production the company have created with everyone clearly working in unison.
Having seen a proper and serious Hamlet in Angel, it’s great to see how well Stoppard lampoons the original story as scenes from Shakespeare’s play come into the hearing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, just not quite enough for them to know what’s actually going on. Hamlet himself (Luke Mullins) is portrayed as a self-involved and over-preening idiot who talks to himself, while Claudius and Gertrude (Wil Johnson and Marianne Oldham) are exaggerated toy-theatre creations. Arguably none of them speak Shakespeare’s lines with clarity but we not really here for that.
With both plays opening so close together it is the perfect opportunity to see them side-by-side, although perhaps not on the same day. With the Almeida’s show running at four hours and this at two and half that would be a massive, although not impossible, undertaking. And seeing Hamlet first is probably the right way to do it as a reminder of the plot – you probably do need to know it well enough to get all the references in Stoppard’s play. But Leveaux’s version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a real treat, funny, beautifully staged and full of joy thanks to pitch perfect central performances from Haig, McGuire and Radcliffe.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is at the Old Vic until 29th April and tickets start at £12. There will be an NT Live cinema screening on 20 April and the show is participating in the TIX £20 front row lottery. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1