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.