It’s not the end if everyone’s still on his feet, proclaims David Haig’s scraggly Player in the final act of Tom Stoppard’s classic tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. In this Old Vic production, staged in celebration of the play’s 50th anniversary, director David Leveaux delivers a soaring, relentless, and touching excursion through the bends and twists of the human psyche. Quite likely, then, that more than one person would’ve been on his feet by the end of it all, despite the Player’s solemn declaration repeated above.
On a stage that’s been extended and styled to seem endless, two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet wrestle with the fact that they don’t know what’s going on, where they are, why they’re there, or how it’ll all end. Much like the rest of us, it must be said. (Though minus the velvety costumes and prop daggers, for the most part.)
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are played by Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire respectively. (Or was it the other way round? No one seems sure, including the characters themselves.) These two actors do a fine job navigating the existential crises of two dramatis personae who are trying to make sense of their own place in a story they see only snatches of as the main action of Shakespeare’s tragedy unfolds elsewhere (and only occasionally crashes into their hidey hole in the wings).
Radcliffe’s naïve amnesiac unravels rapidly when his cosy place in the world is threatened, while McGuire plays the part of the more dominant half of the duo with sensitivity and great comic timing. The latter appears inconsolable in his defeat: clammy, pale, devoid of certainty. Radcliffe and McGuire form a highly entertaining and seemingly indefatigable double-act whose verbal tennis match (staged beautifully) has the entire audience in stitches. Yet they also manage to knock the wind out of you when their playful veneer cracks away for a moment and the existential dread beneath is allowed to become achingly visible on that vast, empty stage.
Haig is superb as the verbose, self-important, posturing Player who acts as guide to the titular characters on this opaque journey through the script that is their lives. He struts and gestures and proclaims until there isn’t a single uncracked smile in the house. This makes his second-act speech lamenting the loss of his audience all the more heartrending, as he changes gears from ridiculous to tragic in milliseconds, and takes the whole house with him.
Minimalist set and costume design succeed in placing the action in its appropriate historical setting, and somehow simultaneously, at any other time. Everything is just plush enough not to distract from the brilliance of the dialogue, and the physical blocking is natural and unforced throughout.
The audience cannot help but root for these characters as they rail against the script they’re trapped in. Their witty, rapid-fire dialogue becomes an alluring defence against the reality of the abyss. ‘We have no control; none at all!’ exclaims the Player at one point, to the dismay of Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, and their audience. That may be so, but we do have words, and those’ll have to do for now.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is being screened as part of the current National Theatre Live season, and can be seen at Cinema Nouveau at the V&A Waterfront on the 7th, and 8th of June. Tickets are available at www.sterkinekor.com.