Wednesday, 8 March 2017

Theatre Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

There's no denying that there's a certain pressure to watching a play by a playwright you don't tend to be a fan of when that playwright is standing three rows behind you. Especially when that playwright is Tom Stoppard. And the play is his fifty (FIFTY!) year old debut masterwork Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. 

Now, it is certainly the case that my Stoppard encounters to date - the ponderous and dull Hapgood and the slightly less dull but no less ponderous The Hard Problem - have not been happy ones. But I wanted so much to love The Old Vic's new production of R&G (as I shall be calling it because laziness) and I felt like I should love it, purely because it's such a classic. And you know what, Reader, I did love it. Huzzah and, indeed, hurrah!

I didn't just love it through sheer force of will either. In truth, and rather surprisingly based on past experience, it was the writing I loved most of all. It is baffling to me that this play is fifty years old. The writing feels so fresh and relevant ('I never believed in England' packing a particular punch in the post-Brexit world). It's also a fantastic example of the exact thing that has pissed me of the most in Stoppard before: the melding of an exploration of Big Ideas and an actual plot works so well in R&G whereas previously I've always found watching Stoppard a bit like being punched in the face with his latest Big Ideas whilst something purporting to be a plot is neglected in the background.

It helps that the Big Ideas that R&G seeks to explore are rather more accessible (and interesting) than those of Hapgood (particle physics) and The Hard Problem (game theory) too: the nature of truth (#fakenews), memory, drama, free will and identity are all given a very effective airing. Sometimes this is done in small ways  - the fact that no one, including the characters, are precisely sure which of R&G is which - sometimes big ways and long speeches. The latter occasionally gets a mite tiresome, particularly at the beginning of act one when you don't yet have a plot to put them in context, but overall it really works. If this is what Stoppard was shooting at with his aforementioned other work then I feel like I suddenly understand those plays a lot more. It's perhaps noteworthy that, according to the programme, whenever he's asked what R&G is about Stoppard still just replies 'two friends on their way to Elsinore'. I doubt this same casualness is applied if he's asked about Hapgood or The Hard Problem. There's probably a lesson - or a GCSE drama essay question - in there somewhere.

This R&G also has an exceptional R&G, as it were. The star booking is, of course, Harry Potter himself, Daniel Radcliffe, as Rosencrantz - a part in which he is very well cast. He does comedy very well and his downtrodden, slightly stupid, but genuinely likeable R completely works. Technically, his projection still isn't quite right for a venue the size of The Old Vic, but this is a relatively minor quibble and certainly doesn't distract from the enjoyment of the piece.

Joshua McGuire's Guildenstern is the real joy of the two titular characters. Likeable, despite being a bit of a dick; enjoyably superior, despite not actually being that much more intelligent that R when it comes down to it; and carrying the majority of the heavy lifting, text-wise, with ease. He is excellent and this is a fantastically accomplished performance from a relatively young (trans: younger than me) actor.

However, both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are acted under the table by the sublime David Haig as The Player, a joyous romp of a part. Dressed like a poor man's Jack Sparrow and reprising his Inspector Grim from The Thin Blue Line voice (to my utter delight, I loved that show), Haig doesn't so much steal every scene he's in so much as seduce it. It's a genuinely great performance, I challenge you to find one more all-round entertaining anywhere on the London stage,  with ultimately some real depth and a lot of heart. My performances of the year list has a new top billing.

I have finally found a Tom Stoppard play to fall in love with and I question the opinions of anyone who can see this production and not feel the same way. Another solid gold hit for the breathtakingly consistent Matthew Warchus' Old Vic. (What a booking he's turned out to be - Kevin who..?)

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at The Old Vic until 29th April. It's also getting the NT Live treatment - The Old Vic's first - on 20th April.

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