Review of ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’

By Gavin Elias

It was with uncertainty and intrigue that I set off on a blistering Saturday night, adorned with gloves and hat, to see the UCC Fall Show for 2009. I admit that I knew between little and nothing about Tom Stoppard’s ‘profound comedy’ of ‘Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead’, save that it extrapolated upon the exploits of the eponymous courtiers who made a supporting appearance in ‘Hamlet’, and what little I may have gleaned from the ubiquitous posters that had appeared around the school. Perhaps due to my relative ignorance, the opening moments of the play proved strange and somewhat peculiar, as in pitch blackness, a disembodied voice intermittently proclaimed “Heads!”, for no apparent reason. However, only two minutes into the piece, I was thoroughly engaged in the unfolding drama, as Guildenstern launched into a philosophical diatribe on the nature of chance while Rosencrantz commented upon the oddity of toe-nail growth. After a confusing yet entertaining opening, the plot began to get underway, as the audience learnt about a critical errand which the two courtiers were on, and how they seemed to have forgotten everything, including their own identities. The grandiose arrival of a group of bumbling ‘tragedians’ interrupted the pair’s intellectual rambling, and propelled the action into Elsinore, where the courtiers were asked to determine the nature of Hamlet’s madness by Claudius and Gertrude. From here until the play’s conclusion, the actions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern intertwined with the larger plot of Hamlet, although in an interesting irony, this provides only a backdrop for the real drama; the important parts of the play occur ‘in the wings’ of Shakespeare’s work, as it were.

Immediately I was struck by the aptitude and verisimilitude with which the leads preformed their parts.  Christopher Griffiths, IB1, did an excellent job in capturing the reflective and cogitative nature of Guildenstern, and he seemed to flow freely between humourous quips and convoluted philosophical arguments. And Rosencrantz was brought to life by Adam Stone, IB2, with great panache; Stone had many of the funniest lines in the play, and delivered these with timing and skill. The two actors offset each other marvellously, and some of the best moments of the play came during their verbal fencing, in which caustic puns and dazzling wordplay seemed to dance off their tongues like steroid-pumped acrobats. Another key role was played with great aplomb by Sinan Malik, IB1, whose engaging turn as the ‘Player’ escalated the already silly piece to new levels of absurdity. As the leader of the tragedians, who coincidentally (or perhaps fatefully) cross paths with the protagonists, Malik brought an interesting dynamic to the play, and provided an amusing change from the lengthy dialogues between the courtiers. I was less impressed by the tragedians themselves however, who served mainly as providers of slapstick comic relief, which was altogether unnecessary in a play which was saturated with intelligent humour. A running gag which grew increasingly stilted as it wore on concerned the cross-dressing antics of the tragedian Alfred (Elliott McMurchy, Y2). Though initially entertaining, this sort of humour generally degraded the overall sophistication of the play.

The play was artfully interlinked with the plot of Hamlet, in part due to the general proficiency of many of the supporting players. King Claudius and Queen Gertrude, played respectively by Philip von Hahn, IB1, and Carolyn Scott, BSS, brought the necessary prestige and arrogance to their characters, which served to emphasize the insignificance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the grand scheme of things and their impotence to alter the course of events, while also hinting at the Shakespearian action that was unfolding offstage. And Henry Krause (FY) preformed quite well as Hamlet, though he was mostly relegated to the sidelines by the charismatic protagonists, and played a minor supporting role at best. The set of the play was surprisingly minimalist, with the only set being a few crates which appeared onstage in Act 3, but this proved appropriate for the abstract mood of the piece and its dialogue-based form. Furthermore, the play felt very well paced and put together, and never seemed to lag or lose itself, due no doubt to the guidance of directors Gillian Levene and Judith Macdonell.

And the piece that was trumpeted as a ‘profound comedy’ did not disappoint on that front either; indeed, the play thematically broached weighty concepts such as probability and certainty, free will vs. determinism and existentialism. However, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves were essentially portrayed comically; they came across as ignorant of their surroundings, past and even their existence, and lacked even the most rudimentary common knowledge. Yet such a backdrop was ideal for the style of the play, as the two frequently stumbled into making deep philosophical observations completely unknowingly. The theme of identity was one that seemed particularly evident in the piece; other characters frequently mixed up Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s names when addressing them, as did the courtiers themselves. And Rosencrantz and Guildenstern even seemed to swap personalities at times, suggesting the two are not truly distinct entities, but rather manifestations of a whole.

To conclude, I felt ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ was a thoroughly successful and entertaining theatrical performance, one that was both intelligent and humourous. Superb acting on the part of the major characters carried the absurdist drama, and gave the play a strong sense of coherence despite the lack of a straightforward plot. With few pitfalls, this show was overwhelmingly well-done, and provided a thought-provoking romp into the often turbid depths of philosophical thought.

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