Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead follows the bewildered minor characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern from the original Shakespearean classic Hamlet. They are called upon by the new King Claudius, Hamlet’s uncle who has quickly married Hamlet’s mother Gertrude, and charged to figure out the cause of Hamlet’s melancholy and bring him into a better mood. Little more is told of them other than they are old friends of Hamlet from his childhood, yet they become dragged into a game of politics and drama far beyond their comprehension.
The curtain is raised on a striking first visual of the stage. It is laid out as a black and white checked chess board, with large dice and a slide further back, which immediately draws our focus to the themes of games, chance, and players that are strongly carried through throughout every aspect of this production. The whole production quality is exquisite, my congratulations go to the show’s producer Ellen Olley for such a cohesive and professional set, costume, and lighting design, that so well captures the both existential and playful tone of the play.
DUCT’s choice of this play is a bold one; it is infamously tricksy and can easily tangle into incomprehensible nonsense. All credit is due to Ben Johanson who directed the play, alongside the assistance of Flo Lunnon and Lara Eastaugh, as they handle the text with such dexterity and clarity. They manage to present sense out of what could affront you as madness, and draw you into the mindset of the characters, so as to perfectly empathise and engage with their struggles throughout the entire performance. The interplay between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or was it Guildenstern and Rosencrantz?) is dynamic, teasing, and poignant, a perfect double act as well as individually brilliant roles. Ben Smart’s performance as Rosencrantz is endearing, he brings a puppy like energy that is full of enthusiasm without being overly slapstick. His chirpy playfulness acts as a perfect foil to Adela Hernandez- Derbyshire’s performance of Guildenstern. She grasps at reason within the ridiculous, and provides a voice of piercing philosophical insights and existential questions that demand our engagement in her powerfully direct addresses to the audience. Their duality is further reinforced on stage by their simple monochrome white and black outfits, implying the role as pawns at the utter mercy of the powerful main players.
These key roles that so devastatingly control Rosencrantz and Guildenstern include Hamlet as acted by Emily Oliver, Charlie Howe as Claudius, and Ben Willows as The Player. While it may be of some benefit to have a vague knowledge of the original storyline of ‘Hamlet’ in order to place the significance of these character’s fleeting visitations within Stoppard’s reimagined version, each role is convincingly carried out to a fullness of character that does both does justice and subverts their original depictions. Emily Oliver’s performance as Hamlet is cruel, cool, and calculated, dressed in a black leather combination and knave chess piece headpiece, they are swaggering, self-absorbed, and totally unaware of no longer being the main character in their own play. A similar mention must be made of Ben Willows’ wonderfully wicked role as The Player, the domineering leader of a theatrical troupe, who embodies the melodramatic, suggestive, and at times desperate presentation of acting and what it means to perform.
The production is mesmerising from beginning to end. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern keep up the rapid pace of the performance and interact with the audience with such vulnerability and intimacy of thoughts that you cannot help but get sucked into the rabbit hole of their existential fears, trapped frustrations, and desperately inescapable fates. I cannot recommend the play highly enough; for those who love all things theatrical, Shakespearean, philosophical, joyful and truth seeking, it is a play that grasps at what it is to perform our roles in life and other’s realities. It perfectly balances the comic with the wistful, producing a disorientating and rationalising effect that punches with power and leaves you breathless.
Image credit: DUCT Theatre Company, art by Emily Oliver