“There must have been a moment, at the beginning, when we could have said ‘no’”
Tom Stoppard’s play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead makes the leap from Chichester to the Theatre Royal Haymarket to continue the Trevor Nunn season there. For its premise, it takes these two minor characters from Hamlet and inverts the perspective of the show so that we see the events of Shakespeare’s play but from their utterly bewildered eyes. As they try to make sense of their lives and what is happening to them and around them, scenes from Hamlet play out and matters of destiny, mortality and the meaning of existence perused and debated.
Tim Curry was forced to withdraw from the Chichester run during rehearsals – Chris Andrew Mellon continuing to act up in his stead – but Nunn’s canniest casting is in reuniting original History Boys Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker in the title roles. The pair exchange huge amounts of great banter, insistently rhythmic at times but differentiated too, as Barnett’s quavering Rosencrantz edges closer to panic whilst feeling his way around the uncertainty that dominates their existence and Parker’s Guildenstern maintains a stiffer resolve.
It is hard to escape the feeling that this is one joke stretched very thin though. The complex word-play and verbal games that are so impressive to start with become somewhat wearing despite the best efforts of Barnett and Parker, as the tone of knowing cleverness doesn’t actually relent enough to allow the mournful reflection that Stoppard is evidently aiming for to breathe and take hold in the play. The addition of the Players, led by Mellon in bumptious Curry-inspired form, adds another layer of doubt to their musings, here in the relationship between art and reality and the repeated use of meta-theatre to make plain what is obvious to us, yet continues to elude our title characters.
Simon Higlett’s design is darkly bleak and suggestive of being located somewhere on the existential plane and I liked Fotini Dimou’s costumes, though the (unexplained and unexplored) disparity between leads and company led me to believe that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were perhaps dead from the start. The main problem for me though is that this just isn’t my kind of theatre, I’ve never really been a fan of watching people talk about the meaning of life and existence though I have tried, I even saw Waiting for Godot twice. But crucially here, Stoppard takes a very long time to say, well not very much, spending too much time constructing dazzling verbiage and whilst the philosophical concepts raised don’t lend themselves to easy resolution, there is little sense that there’s even some progress towards greater understanding.
In the end, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was meant to continue to sympathise with these two, whose university experience seems to have done them no favours at all as they glide through their blissful ignorance. And though it boasts a pair of strong performances, Barnett emerging as the stronger of the two, there is an air of dated worthiness about much of the content. Lest I be too hard on Stoppard, his writing from 1966 is remarkably prescient in pointing forward to a whole world of postmodern approaches that may appear conventional to us now, but I’m not so sure it works in the modern day and its position as a classic thus feels questionable.