Fate, chance, probability, life and death; these are the themes explored by Tom Stoppard in his 1967 play which flips Shakespeare’s famous drama Hamlet like the toss of a coin.
In this version, Hamlet is a minor character who, along with his murderous uncle, treacherous mother and unstable love interest, are bit parts in the story of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two hapless childhood friends of the Danish prince who are drawn unwittingly into events of which they have limited knowledge.
Asked by the King to spy on their friend, the pair blunder unwisely into a dangerous situation, becoming pawns in a larger game. Through their eyes we see Hamlet’s ‘madness’, his killing of Polonius and aggressive advances towards Ophelia. It is a new perspective for audiences who know Shakespeare’s play, and one which places the sympathy firmly – and humorously – with the dunce-like double-act.
Interchangeable to the extent that they forget their own names, these two characters are nevertheless distinct. In the hands of Samuel Barnett, Rosencrantz is the younger and more naïve of the two, slow to grasp ideas and pitifully out of his depth when it comes to the consequences of the King’s request. As things become more fraught he segues into childish petulance, garnering laughs with his faintly diva-ish mannerisms. Jamie Parker’s Guildenstern is marginally wiser; his preoccupation with the nature of fate and probability shows that he does think of the bigger picture, even if he struggles to come to any conclusions.
The fact that we know the duo’s fate in advance gives the play – although comical – an ominous quality. This is enhanced by their interaction with the Players, who are obsessed with staging death. As the head Player, Chris Andrew Mellon – who replaced an ill Tim Curry during the show’s Chichester run – depicts a caddish rogue who simmers with dangerous unpredictability beneath a gregarious surface demeanour.
Packed with classic Shakespearean themes – acting, disguise, mistaken identity – Stoppard cleverly draws the demarcation lines between Shakespeare’s play and his own by having Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak their scenes in modern prose, a clear contrast to the familiar verse we hear as Stoppard’s play interacts, in skewed snippets, with the Bard’s.
Played out on a clever, clean set by Simon Higlett – which enhances the Beckett references of the opening scene – Trevor Nunn’s production hangs on the equally clean casting of the central pair, who bring this curious play to life.