It’s been fifty years since Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead was first performed in Edinburgh by the Oxford Theatre group to an audience of six critics and one lone punter. But Ronald Bryden’s stellar review in the Observer caught the eye of Kenneth Tynan, the director of the National Theatre at the time, and the play opened at its base at the Old Vic later that year. But despite the play’s age, David Leveaux’s current production, back in the Old Vic once more, makes the play feel just as fresh as it would have back in the heyday of post-modernist drama.
A lot of the audience members seemed younger than could be expected, probably due to the presence of Daniel Radcliffe in the role of Rosencrantz. Radcliffe is very good in the role: his boyish anxiousness and bafflement at the absurdist world into which they have been thrust is charming, and he works well as a sidekick to Joshua McGuire’s more confident and cerebral Guildenstern. The two have a good chemistry as they shift between the Shakespearean language of the Denmark court and their own more modern speech, and they help the play avoid seeming tiresome or self-congratulatory with its intellectual in-jokes. David Haig is excellent as the Player, both amusingly bawdy and eerily knowing while Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain in the dark as to their role in the tragedy in which they are but minor characters. The group of tragedians that the Player commands are all dressed like Pierrot and every scene with them was a delight to watch.
The set, designed by Anna Fleische, is fantastic. Pink and blue clouds, idyllic yet unnerving, painted on the walls seem to resemble the sets of 50s Hollywood productions or poor amateur stage backcloths, a witty and self-consciously meta-theatrical reference, like the red “EXEUNT” sign at the back of the stage. The physical movement and timing of all the actors is superb, and not once did the play feel tedious or over-long, due to the constant injections of humour amidst the Beckettian existential angst.
Luke Mullins and Helena Wilson (who left Oxford this summer) are strong as Hamlet and Ophelia, and Mullins is especially funny as he pronounces Hamlet’s more self-indulgently miserable lines. However, such emphasis is given to caricaturing Shakespeare’s prince of Denmark that the Hamlet figure we are offered is not one the audience can recognize or sympathise with – giving Stoppard’s commentary on Hamlet less of a meaning.
Overall, it’s a brilliant production of a play that blends philosophical commentary on the theatre and human existence with frequent moments of wit and hilarity. I look forward to seeing the play in fifty years’ time, and I doubt it will feel any more dated than it does today.