Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead! Old Vic review: ‘too intelligent’

By Helen Chatterton

Fifty Years after Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead premiered at the Old Vic, it has returned to the very same stage, now featuring Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire. Whilst the script is undeniably intelligent and witty, the absurd, metadramatic play which follows two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, is perhaps too intelligent for wider audiences.

For anyone who has read or seen Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, the parallels are immediately obvious, both in linguistic features and overarching, existential concerns. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves seem to directly mirror Vladimir and Estragon’s confusion of personal history and purpose. However, the effect of this coupling was somewhat polarising for the audience, with the opening scene – which features a complex, fast paced discussion of the principles of probability – appearing seemingly without context or necessity. Whilst the dialogue was completely coherent, it required a great level of concentration to follow and appreciate many of the subtleties. This was to continue throughout, with any slight lapse in concentration rendering the plot bewildering.

Nevertheless, the dialogue was well managed by both Radcliffe and McGuire, whom had a great onstage chemistry and portrayed the confusion of the characters well. Their performances were greatly aided by David Haig’s performance of The Player being the right balance of seedy, comedic and darkly astute.

The performance is described as a comedy, and indeed this is the genre to which it best fits. But, with its sometimes hurried and complex dialogue, and tendency to veer into existential discussion, it is no bundle of laughs nor a cheery tale. What was noticeable from the audience’s reaction was that the more intellectual the humour, the weaker the response to such. Satire based off of metadramatic perceptions were met largely with silence, whereas in a moment reminiscent of pantomime, the protagonists’ attempt to hide themselves in plain sight, was far more successful.

Unsurprisingly, the play was far more logical to anyone with a prior knowledge of Hamlet. Scenes directly borrowed or based off of Shakespeare’s play were central to the development of the plot, but were given little stage time, leaving the focus on the conversations of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. The performance was understandable in fragments, but to some audience members, an actual plot was thin on the ground.

In a short video aired before the performance, the theatre admits to often hosting new, controversial material, remarking that even older dramas often strike a chord with contemporary events. This was the case with R&GAD, as whilst written half a century ago, and based on life in 17th Century Norway, jokes mocking the political and cultural state of England were both relevant and well received.

In the aforementioned opening video, the size of the stage was emphasised, as it extended into both the backstage area and into the audience. However, the play itself did not need all of this space, and there was no obvious reason why it could not have been performed on a regularly sized stage. The answer may perhaps be found in its likeness to Waiting for Godot, as the cloud painted backdrop was reminiscent of the barren stages on which Beckett’s play is usually performed.

Costuming was slightly eclectic, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were dressed as may have been expected in a contemporary performance of Hamlet, whereas Hamlet himself sported jeans, a bomber jacket and black ruff, Polonius and The Player looked like they had just finished a performance of Les Miserables, and Claudius donned a crown more appropriate to A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

If you fancy an evening of philosophical discussion of what it is to be mad, whether actors can convincingly portray death, and the misuse of free speech, or simply enjoy traditional drama, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead! is what you are looking for. If you instead crave light-hearted comedy, your needs might be better met elsewhere.

Photograph: Old Vic via Twitter

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