Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead Review

Based on minor characters from Shakespeare’s much-loved tragedy ‘Hamlet’, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is, to this day, Tom Stoppard’s most famous play, combining deeply philosophical thoughts on the inevitability of death with humour and comedy that even myself, your average twenty-year-old, can find deeply hilarious. Half a century after its premiere on The Old Vic stage, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead returned to the beautiful setting once more, and although I was unable to attend the live showing of the play, I was able to attend the National Theatre Live viewing at a local cinema (which was a lot better than I had expected).

For those unaware of the plot, which I was too prior to a quick google search five minutes before the show started, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead focuses on two characters, Rosencrantz (Daniel Radcliffe) & Guildenstern (Joshua McGuire), two old friends of Hamlet who set off to Denmark under the orders of the new King, to probe Hamlet on his new-found madness. One aspect I did admire was how closely linked the two shows were (despite having different writers) and the crossovers between the two plays. From this, I will advise that you do see Hamlet before seeing Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead, as I can picture it otherwise being incredibly confusing, and that a large number of crossovers could not be as admired as they should be.

I must admit, I largely went to see this play on the pure basis of the casting, and was not disappointed. Radcliffe and McGuire had incredible chemistry, and their juxtaposition in both characters and appearance just made their relationship even more of a pleasure to watch. Radcliffe creates a lean, scruffy and somewhat anxious Rosencrantz, whereas McGuire goes for an intelligent, well-kempt Guildenstern. Between them, they constantly swap roles, and even names, which just further develops their obvious bond, and to me, their quick-fire interactions added a true depth which I can’t picture any other two actors captivating so well. I was amazed at just how much two small humans could fill the massive space that was the stage, and still can’t believe, or even put into words, how perfect both of them were within their roles, as well as together.

Photo by Manuel Harlan

The Players also had a key part within the show, adding a new darkly comedic twist, which at times had me in tears. Accompanied with their fantastic costumes and wacky make-up, each of The Players were a visually intriguing, and they’re performance as a group were well-timed, well-directed and well-choreographed. On top of this, the use of live music played by each of them as they entered the stage, as well as when they wished to add mood to the scene, was a fantastic and intelligent touch, which only drew me further into their performance.  

The lead Player (performed by David Haig) was a fantastic addition to the group, and his work alongside all who encountered him lead to some side-splitting, and occasionally breath-taking, moments on stage. Haig presented a flawless performance, all was ensuring he did not outshine Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which I muchly appreciated.

Photo by Manuel Harlan

The shape of the staging was quite spectacular and resembled nothing I had ever seen before. Simplistically stunning, it ensured to not distract from the plot that unfolded before us, whilst still captivating all that was required. Lighting complemented the set perfectly, and the occasional black-out moments helped to ensure all focus was on the incredible scripting and truly drew you into the scene. Anna Fleischle’s design consisted of cloud printed canvases, with a highly intelligent use of a single curtain to cover set changes. One thing I really admired about this curtain though was how well it was integrated within scenes and was used to resembled key locations, such as the ship, as well as room changes.

As mentioned above, I did watch this play through the National Theatre Live and did thoroughly enjoy it. Although the theatre atmosphere is slightly lost, the camera work and close-ups did allow me to see details that I might have otherwise missed. From this, every facial expression was displayed with such clarity. The plays emotions and characterizations were in no way lost and definitely added a new depth to the live performance.

As a whole, David Leveaux did a fantastic job of direction, and really brought Stoppard’s script to life. Leveaux’s direction allowed a fast-paced performance which maintained momentum throughout and ensured that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern remain the focus, in a perfectly subtle way. I loved the way in which the play was in no way modernised to the present day, and felt, much to many critics disagreement, that the play was beautifully directed.

Photo by Manuel Harlan

Although this play will lead you down the dark path of a minor (or somewhat major) existential crisis, it is a truly enjoyable show with an essence of Shakespeare refreshingly flickered throughout. Sharp, witty yet incredibly dark, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a pure embodiment of a tragic comedy, and is certainly up there with theatrical greats. Even with a different casting, I would find this script impossible to be broken, and for me, it was the script that had made this performance so incredible (although the likes of Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire did improve everything and display one of the greatest duo performances I have ever witnessed).

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