Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by Tom Stoppard.
Directed by Cate Clelland. Canberra Repertory Society. Theatre 3. February 17 – March 5 2022. Bookings 6257 1950. www,canberrarep.org.au
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
|Josh Wiseman as Guildenstern, Jack Shanahan as Hamlet,|
Lainie Hart as Rosencrantz
After the New York opening performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, a member of the audience approached playwright Tom Stoppard. “Are you the writer?” she asked. “Yes” the young playwright replied. “Well, that’s the worst play I have ever seen!” A prestigious Tony a year later for Best New Play, a rave review from revered New York critic Clive Barnes and decades of accolades have proven the audience member to be wrong. It was immediately evident that Stoppard’s mordant comedy was indeed a most palpable hit, and the laughter that echoed through Theatre 3 at Cate Clelland’s lively production was evidence enough that neither the play’s lustre nor the audience’s love of the play has dimmed.
In revisiting Stoppard’s witty, intelligent and ingeniously conceived comic masterpiece, I am struck by its familiarity and inspiration. The parallels with Samuel Beckett’s Waiting For Godot and the inclusion of referential scenes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet lend Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead a particular thematic relevance. Both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and Estragon and Vladimir appear together on stage at the opening of the plays. They are waiting, in the case of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to be sent for by the Danish court and in the case of Estragon and Vladimir for Mr. Godot to arrive. Both pairs seek to pass the time. Both pairs consider the nature of existence. In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the two test the probability of possibility by tossing a coin to see which side turns up. In Beckett the two consider different ways to pass the time and relieve the waiting. All question the very nature of existence and in his funny and sadly ironic contemplation of being dead in a box, Rosencrantz confronts the reality of eternal oblivion. Stoppard’s wit relies on syllogism and puns. Beckett draws on the inspiration of silent film comedy. Both plays examine the unresolved existence. Those familiar with Hamlet will know that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s fate is inevitable and an audience watches on as these two minor characters from Hamlet move irrevocably towards the play’s predestined denouement.
|Arran McKenna as Player King. Josh Wiseman|
as Guildenstern, Lainie Hart as Rosencrantz
It is imperative that anybody seeking to direct Stoppard’s comedy should pay careful attention to the casting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Here Clelland has scored another palpable hit by casting Lainie Hart as Rosencrantz in a move that challenges convention by casting a woman in the role, and Josh Wiseman as Guildenstern. With the support of Arran McKenna as the bombastic Player King and his troupe of clumsy Mummers, they are the glue that holds this production together. Wiseman and Hart, possibly benefiting from the Covid postponement, create the ideal comedy duo ensemble, in the tradition of Laurel (Guildenstern) and Hardy (Rosencrantz) or Abbott and Costello. Hart illuminates the stage with darting nervousness, verging on panic, vulnerable and childish. Wiseman is the earnest questioner, seeking scientific solutions, reasoning his way through existence and yet conscious of the inevitable end. They are the two sides of the same coin, independent and yet inextricably tied to the same fate. Clelland, Hart and Wiseman have captured the truth that lies within the two main characters and it is a joy to see this in the performance.
The Hamlet scenes that are used to drive the urgency of the action by intruding on the passage of time are less effective. McKenna and the acting troupe, under Belynda Buck’s choreography of the mummers, maintain the right level of excessive theatricality, but the scenes with the members of Hamlet’s court lack a certain vitality. This may be deliberate to contrast the tempo of the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern scenes, but it is Shakespeare’s scenes that propel the action towards the fateful end for its main protagonists. Jack Shanahan is a suitably erratic Hamlet and Annabel Foulds arouses sympathy for the maligned Ophelia. Clelland’s directorial and design concept has maintained the tradition of the period, also evident in the casting of Gertrude (Shannon Mitchell) as a boy actor, although I am puzzled why Ophelia is played by a woman.
All in all this is a thoughtful, faithful and well-staged production of Stoppard’s inventive, intellectually exciting and imaginative take on a backstory to Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It makes for a long night at Rep, which could be much shorter, and which may happen as the play settles in to its rhythm. Audiences will be well entertained by this welcome return of Stoppard’s witty, sometimes frivoulous, sometimes profound but always clever play and Rep’s admirable production.