Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead
National Business Review Review 11 May 2001



Stoppard's Take on Hamlet Sideshow Still Beguiles

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Auckland Theatre Company, Maidment Theatre April 25-May 26

Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples

It is now 35 years since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern was first staged yet it is still fresh and relevant.

The play is densely layered with interwoven themes and narratives and it can be read on a number of levels each of which is satisfying.

Tom Stoppard has taken two of the characters from Hamlet, friends of the prince who are brought in to find out what ails him.  They are then dispatched to England with Hamlet who is to be executed but the prince thwarts the endeavor and it is Rosencrantz and Guildenstern who die.

The play expands the role of the duo to provide their perspective on what happens in the Shakespearean play and is a clever investigation of the life of minor theatrical characters as well as the place of individuals in history generally and how people regard their place in history.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no knowledge of their involvement with Hamlet or their place in the play.  They spend most of their time like some characters from a Beckett play waiting for something to happen.

The play continually intrudes on their life and they are required to take an active role in the play of Hamlet but they are confused, have no script and what occurs happens without an input from them.

They are victims of fate, knowing they have no control over their destiny. 

"Words," as one of the characters says, "that's all we have to go on."  So, like a couple of philosophers, they try to comprehend their world.  But when they encounter other characters from the play their language, especially that of the mad Hamlet, is incomprehensible.

The play also rambles around the theories of reality and illusion in a series of brilliant discourses on life, theatre and acting.

Playing Guildenstern Oliver Driver's languid voice and quizzical expression helps to create a character who is continually surprised at his very existence.

He is slightly uncomfortable with his part in playing the role of Guildenstern who is in turn supposed to be uneasy about the role he is playing.  This uneasy dislocation is part of what makes the play so vibrant.

Craig Parker as Rosencrantz has a more measured tone and his innate cheerful optimist is a foil to Driver's pessimistic approach to life.

Michael Hurst as the ebullient Player is brilliant.  As the only actor in the play he alone is able to bring a sense of reality to the narrative.  As the play's chief philosopher and pragmatic thinker he outlines to the hapless duo and the audience the differences between life and theatre, between illusion and truth, between reason and arbitrariness.  He establishes a clever link to the present by smoking cigarettes and using a lighter.  The audience is always aware of the actor playing the actor, a device which creates a lively tension within the play.

The large boxy set by John Parker shows the designer at his minimalist best.  At times it looks like one of the psychological perspective constructions that distort the size of objects so that the lanky Driver looks as though he is overwhelming the set.  It is also cleverly punctuated by hidden doorways, windows and trapdoors--a clever analogy to the play's inherent disguises and deceptions.

The minor characters put on a great Shakespearean display.  Peter Elliot as Claudius, Geraldine Brophy as Gertrude and Sophia Hawthorne as Ophelia all come across as slightly more crazed than Joel Tobeck's Hamlet.  All appear unclear about to what they are doing in the play.

Director Colin McColl has produced a work which is extraordinarily witty and perceptive.

Stoppard's jokes are often so wry and subtle it takes great care and crafting to make them work.  The director and cast manage to get them and the rapid-fire banter right pretty much every time.

It's an energetic and spirited play which is entertaining, baffling and rewarding.

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