Amy Price reviews DUCT’s remarkable (if lengthy) production of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’.
Before the show began, I braced myself for the three hours of “existential fun” ahead of me. I couldn’t help but feel DUCT had been very brave with their choice of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, and I simply wasn’t expecting it to be quite my cup of tea.
I can only hope that in reading this, other people won’t make the same assumptions.
Whilst not perfect, this show was clever, well paced, and intellectually stimulating (in a good way). It also showcases some truly stunning performances and an effectively frugal design, which more than makes up for the moments where the audience were a little left behind by the on-stage logic.
Dom Williams’ directorial decision to use an empty stage is one that I applaud as it gave the action a professional atmosphere, uncluttered by ineffective and unconvincing set. It also served to highlight Fi Brindle’s very effective costume design, with the main characters in full Shakespearean attire (complete with doublets and velvet capes). By keeping it simple, the production avoided the ‘am-dram’ edge that so often taints Durham Theatre.
Perhaps the simplicity on set was also necessary to tone down the intense complexity of the lines themselves. Stoppard is on par with Beckett in this play, as the dialogue often falls into the realms of incomprehensible philosophizing.
This then becomes a testimony to the immense skill of Jenny Walser and Hugh Train, performing respectively as Guildenstern and Rosencrantz.
To put it simply, I felt very safe with this double act. They were confident in their lines, consistent in their delivery, and actually delightful in their characterisation. In the face of such complex and dense text, they extracted some wonderful comedy and pathos, carrying the audience’s attention to the very end of Act III.
Their skill was epitomized as Guildenstern intently hypothesizes about life and luck in Act I, becoming increasing drawn into ‘himself’ as his notions of reality start to unravel from over-thinking. Walser’s intensity here was utterly convincing, her tone sophisticatedly communicating her intensity of thought, whilst her panic became clear as she spoke faster and faster in her delivery. This was then wonderfully reduced by Rosencrantz’s childish distraction, sitting crossed legged and gazing around the room somewhat mindlessly. Train’s confused ‘Argh?!’ was beautifully timed, with his confusion matching the audiences own reaction to Guildenstern’s complex train of thought.
Moreover, the gender-bending of the Guildenstern role was surprisingly well-done, with Walser competently taking on the dominant role of the pair. It added a dynamic visual for the audience (with Guildenstern close to a foot shorter than Rosencrantz), and also an interesting perspective on the more sensitive side of Guildenstern’s character. Walser’s greatest success was her transition to torturous despair at the end of the show, in a really striking transition from the comic to tragic.
It was a relief that Williams did not attempt to introduce any undercurrent of flirtation between the characters, as this would have distracted from one of the best double-acts I have seen perform in Durham to date.
Mention must also be made to Tyler Rainford’s performance as ‘The Player’, with his absolute commitment to the flamboyant character adding a lot of humour to the show. His stylised movement worked well within the overall design of the play, with a slightly sinister edge that developed towards the end of Act III.
Kudos also goes to the entire Tragedian chorus, who were convincingly gormless throughout as they performed as part of the ‘play with in a play’.
Indeed, Williams dealt with this meta-element of the show very well. The characters frequently paused to examine the audience, with Rosencrantz even attempting to step off the edge of the stage; amusing, but an interesting reminder of the anti-realism of the play as a whole.
However, it must be said that the show had its flaws.
Namely, the last scene of the performance. I felt this scene destroyed the beautiful suspense that Walser and Train created in their final scene on stage, and it seriously disappointed me. The conclusive action was not exactly poor, but lacked the force of the previous scenes and thus served as a thoroughly underwhelming conclusion.
I also felt that some of the moments with Hamlet and Ophelia as ethereal figures at the back of the stage were slightly cheesy, and thus at odds with the hint of sarcasm that pervaded the rest of the show.
Nevertheless, despite these imperfections, it was ultimately a very sophisticated show that is worth watching for its humour and intellectual explorations. I can only hope that DUCT enjoys a full audience for the next two performances, who can appreciate the thought and skill behind it.
Photograph: Shreyas Murali