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Why we loved Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Published 8 March 2017

There’s little that can warm the heart – and, let’s face it, boggle the mind – like a Tom Stoppard comedy. And as the recent acclaim for Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory and Apollo Theatre proved, there’s certainly an appetite for his unique style of highbrow hilarity in London’s Theatreland at the moment.

But with such a peculiar style of writing, could The Old Vic, with an all-star cast including Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire and David Haig, perform one of Stoppard’s earliest works, the existential Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, to perfection on press night? The answer – unlike many of those to the questions posed in the play – is definitive: yes.

Daniel Radcliffe’s return to the London stage

Daniel Radcliffe (Rosencrantz) and Joshua McGuire (Guildenstern) in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Daniel Radcliffe (Rosencrantz) and Joshua McGuire (Guildenstern) in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Daniel Radcliffe has had nothing if not an eclectic career as an actor far, starring in roles from boy wizard on screen, to musically brilliant businessman on Broadway, and disturbed youth Alan Strang in 2007’s West End production of Equus.

In Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, the brilliant actor once again put his range to the test and showcased impressive dexterity, imposing himself upon the role of the meek and shrinking Rosencrantz and playing off Joshua McGuire’s exuberant Guildenstern with aplomb. Through the duo’s sheer comic timing alone, it was a return to the West End stage worth waiting for – and that’s without adding in a scene-stealing turn by David Haig as a bawdy lead Player. Acting excellence abounds.

The hilarity of Hamlet

Luke Mullins (Hamlet) in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at The Old Vic (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Luke Mullins (Hamlet) in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at The Old Vic (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

You may not have realised it, but hidden behind-the-scenes of Shakespeare’s immortal tragedy Hamlet has – at least in the mind of Stoppard – always lain a wise-cracking, meta-theatrical comedy of place and purpose, as the two minor characters unknowingly sent to dispatch the central character ultimately find themselves embroiled in an inevitable march towards death themselves.

With side-splitting confusion permeating throughout, the plight of two wise-cracking characters who barely understand their role in events – let alone on the stage itself – provides a brilliantly inspired, droll, and yet simultaneously moving, foil to the tragic story it continually interweaves with. Who knew Hamlet could be so hilarious?

Merry musings on mortality

The Players in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at The Old Vic (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

The Players in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at The Old Vic (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

Even assuming they hadn’t heard the title, many of the audience attending will be aware of the events of Hamlet and, ultimately, the characters’ of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern’s ultimate fates – spoiler warning: it’s not a happy ending.

But what makes this production of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead so brilliant is not the end result of the characters’ Godot-esque existential bickering, but the darkly comic, and at times even merry, musings on mortality which pave the road towards it. From confusion to cheer, and ultimately resistance to resignation, the show questions how we would all want to take our final bows when the curtain comes down, in both farcical but also poignantly provocative fashion.

 

The quip-fuelled intellectual comedy

David Haig (The Player) and The Players in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at The Old Vic (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

David Haig (The Player) and The Players in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at The Old Vic (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

“FIRE!” barks Rosencrantz (or is that Guildenstern? They don’t seem so sure themselves…), as everybody jumps to their feet – simply because he wants to demonstrate the misuse of free speech.

It’s clear from early on that Tom Stoppard’s famously intellectual comedy is manifested fully in Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, with the playwright’s expertly deft touch in treading the line between brilliance and baffling scripts perfectly realised in a wonderfully rewarding comedy. Fifty years on from its UK premiere, it’s a show to cherish.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead plays at The Old Vic until 29 April. You can book your tickets through us here.

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