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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
"We were sent for. " — Guildenstern
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Rosencrantz (Daniel Radcliffe) and Guildenstern (Joshua McGuire) (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
As a companion piece to Andrew Scott's Hamlet comes this revival of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead about the two hapless friends of Hamlet from university who are drawn into the tragedy. The play is constructed by Tom Stoppard to show what these two characters get up to while waiting to play their part. Michael Frayn would construct a whole play out of the concept of what happens behind the scenes in a play in Noises Off in 1982, and in 1999 Alan Ayckbourn's House and Garden shows what the characters were doing when they were in the other location but in real time.

The play opens with Rosencrantz (Daniel Radcliffe) and Guildenstern (Joshua McGuire) tossing coins and discussing probability theory and statistical likelihood. The idea is that they have nothing better to do as they wait to be summoned by Gertrude (Marianne Oldham) and Claudius (Hermelio Miguel Aquino). This establishes the boredom they have to endure. Although in the Shakespearean play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are seen by Hamlet as disloyal in agreeing to "spy" on him and report back to his uncle, in Stoppard's version they are more likable and of course the audience is very much behind Rosencrantz because of their liking for Daniel Radcliffe, the screen Harry Potter.

The players arrive playing musical instruments and each is dressed in a variation of a clown's outfit with striped tops, large ruffs and white face makeup like mime artists. The entry of the Players brought, for me, the star of the show to the fore — David Haig as the Player King in a long wig knocks the spots off the other actors with his outrageous thespian verve. He is a gloriously over the top actor of the first order as I remember him in Matthew Francis's (now Francis Matthews) Christmas shows in Greenwich as the heroic, swashbuckling Rudolph Rassendyl in The Prisoner of Zenda. The Player King greets the two attendees with the words "An Audience!" promising that, "We do onstage what everybody else does off stage!" Alfred (Matthew Durkan) is the young male actor who has to take the female roles whom the Player King almost pimps for, desperate as he is for a booking.

Anna Fleischle's set is pink and turquoise clouds, like the backdrop of some huge Baroque painting but without the people and the cherubs. It stretches back to the rear of the deep stage and is scrolled round like a woman's hair worn in flicks. We see snatches of scenes from the play: when Claudius muddles up their names and Gertrude corrects him, we have a glimpse of Hamlet (Luke Mullins) and Ophelia (Helena Wilson) and see the body of Polonius (William Chubb) being dragged off.

As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern rehearse how to question Hamlet, Rosencrantz looks glum and Guildenstern is teasing. The Player King sums it up, "We're tragedians, you see. We follow directions - there is no choice involved. The bad end unhappily, the good unluckily. That is what tragedy means." So are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the bad ending unhappily or good people doomed to end unluckily? It does seem to me that death is a terrible punishment for their agreeing to the request of a monarch.

Tom Stoppard's writing is so full of wit and aphorisms there is plenty to laugh at but it doesn't call for serious acting talent from the two young men. The first act sees Josh McGuire's Guildenstern as the more animated of the pair but in the second act Rosencrantz comes into his own. This is the third time I have seen Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead so the novelty has worn off and the core of the play has the feel of Beckett's Waiting for Godot as a study in powerlessness and futility. For many Harry Potter fans this will be their first encounter with the play and there is much to enjoy.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead will be live streamed to cinemas as a part of the National Theatre Live programme on 20th April 2017.

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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by David Leveaux
Starring: David Haig, Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire
With: Louisa Beadel, Josie Dunn, Matthew Durkan, Evlynne Oyedokun, Alex Sawyer, Tim van Eyken, Luke Mullins, Helena Wilson, Hermellio Miguel Aquino, Theo Ogundipe, Wil Johnson, Marianne Oldham, William Chubb
Set Design: Anna Fleischle
Lighting Design: Howard Harrison
Costume Design: Anna Fleischle and Loren Elstein
Sound Design: Fergus O'Hare
Movement: Lizzi Gee
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 22nd April 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 8th March 2016 performance at The Old Vic, Waterloo Road, London SE1 8NB
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