Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead review: ‘exasperating’

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was not exactly my cup of tea. Tom Stoppard’s play expands upon the lives of two lesser-known characters from Hamlet, and combined with a Beckettian style of plot and drama, was doomed to be a challenging choice of production for the Woodplayers. Frequently overhearing other audience members remarking that they ‘weren’t sure what was going on,’ I’m not certain how far the Woodplayers have succeeded in their endeavour. What I will say is that I’m fairly certain I understood this production – what I didn’t understand was why on earth I spent over three hours sat inside Collingwood College on one of the hottest days of the year so far. That, surely, is more questionable than the play’s own contents.

Naturally, this play depends on the performances of its two main leads, and Gwen Jones and Adam Murphy – as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern respectively – provided worthy performances. Jones appeared confident in her role as the more simple-minded of the two, capturing attention as the likeable idiot. However, she was at times not believable enough to carry across Rosencrantz’s moments of seriousness. If, as she readily admits, the character of Rosencrantz came quite easily to her, it is still hard to trust her switches into sincerity, when they do occur. Murphy, on the other hand, was immediately obvious as the more pensive of the duo, portraying Guildenstern’s lengthy, existentialist speeches with ease. Which is to say he produced them with ease, not that the audience fully understood or cared what he was getting at. What concerned me about Murphy’s performance was that whilst diction was relatively consistent throughout, there were moments when, for some reason, he chose to yell his lines quite loudly. Frankly, these moments did ensure the audience stayed awake for the entire show, but were a poor acting choice, failing to endear the audience to Guildenstern’s evident despair.

Meanwhile, the rest of the cast complimented Murphy and Jones’ performances well, serving as light relief from the duo’s scenes together. A personal favourite was Aaron Thompson as The Player, whose confidence in his role was keenly apparent, and was possibly the instigator of much of the audience’s laughter. When the audience entered the venue, Thompson was seemingly already in character, pacing and preparing the stage for the action ahead – although I’m not really sure how much this added to the production as a whole. However, when accompanied by his Tragedians, The Player and company provided the brevity needed to break up the play’s action (or lack thereof), making the drabness of Act 2 seem almost bearable – their enactment of The Murder of Gonzago during a dress rehearsal, and particularly Samuel Kirkman’s turn as the long-suffering Alfred, were definitive highlights.

Credit should be given to the production team for their simplistic and intimate choice of venue, which seemed well-suited to such a minimalist production. Minor hindrances are to be expected; the stage was creaky and often rather clunky, and whatever they were trying to suggest with the backdrop of sackcloth and a few random objects wasn’t clear at all. Nevertheless, costumes were impressive, particularly for the main pair, and apart from a few patches – Thompson spent a good five minutes trying to deal with a hole in his tights – were impressively in touch with the characters. Whatever my misgivings were before Rosencrantz and Guildenstern began their cycle of coin-tossing, this production stands as a testament to the hard work and commitment of the Woodplayers, even if it isn’t suited to everyone’s tastes.

Certainly, the production’s major issues came from the inherent trials of Stoppard’s script, as pacing was, at times, exasperating. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is a production that has two intervals for a reason, but it was here that I was shocked to find that only an hour had passed since the last reprieve. This problem was particularly felt in the second act, which apart from the aforementioned aspects, felt like one of the most tedious things I had ever witnessed. The cast, it seemed, did little to manage the production’s evident pacing issues, but still managed to bring the ply to a relatively coherent conclusion in Act 3. Yet the final scene – itself the final lines of Hamlet – was weak, relying on the audience’s awareness of this script and its action. This seemed a problem throughout Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as scenes and lines derived directly from Shakespeare’s tragedy served little purpose other than to expand the length of the play, rather than providing any necessary suspense or drama.

Instead, Stoppard’s play seems to conclude with a sense of relief; an end to the persecution, as Guildenstern puts it ‘to be kept intrigued without ever quite being enlightened.’ Enlightenment won’t be found from watching the Woodplayers’ production, but hopefully, you may find the afternoon’s entertainment more intriguing than I did.

‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’ will be performed in Collingwood College from Saturday, 17th June until Monday 19th June at 14:30. Book your tickets here. 

Photograph: Samuel Kirkman

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