There must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said – no. But somehow we missed it.
NT Live is a wonderful thing. Front row tickets for cheap – minus some of the buzz, but, on a budget, who really cares? I’ve seen some fantastic productions from the comfort of my local cinema, avoiding the 4-hour train journey to London and the snazzy London prices. Tom Hiddleston’s sexy Coriolanus, the exquisite Amadeus, Sam Mendes’ gritty Lear, Ivo van Hove’s unparalleled A View from the Bridge, and fabulous dark comedy Hangmen – to name just a few. And, yet, only one has truly struck me to the very core, taken my emotions and juggled with them, made me laugh and cry and left me deep in thought and stretched thin with feeling.
And that was the Old Vic production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.
It’s not my first outing into Tom Stoppard’s Godot-esque Hamlet spin-off. I read the play for the first time a few months back whilst studying Shakespeare’s original, and it took my breath away. When asked who the modern Shakespeare is, I will not hesitate to name Stoppard. His command over language, the intricacies, the observations, the intelligence, all come together into a play that, immediately after laughing and sighing my way through it, I was more than happy to name it my favourite modern play.
But reading the play can’t even begin to come close to watching it performed, particularly in so beautiful a venue as the Old Vic, and by such a talented ensemble, and in a faultless production.
The Old Vic production is, quite simply, quite frankly, an accomplishment worthy of this masterpiece’s 50th anniversary. I can’t even begin to credit this production highly enough, but I must. It’s my summons.
The stage is enormous, pushed beyond the proscenium arch and back into what would normally be backstage, filled with fluffy Renaissance clouds, and more or less bare (besides a ladder and a curtain) for the entirety. Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe – two very small men – are dwarfed in its enormity. But, unlike the RSC’s 2015 Merchant of Venice, it does not detract. The player’s riff of John Osborne, “Don’t clap too loudly – it’s a very old world.” is given strange, surreal weight when the sky itself seems too be falling apart around the actors, swallowing them. There is no earth. No direction. Just clouds all around. It is easy to understand why our two heroes are so lost, so confused as to where they are, because there is no up and no down in this set. And the large curtain, representative of Elsinore, harbouring an over-sized map, is a nice throw to their eventual trip to England and – of course – their deaths.
The players in this production are white-faced clowns/mimes, inhuman, stalking the stage with woodwind and brass, watching the action silently, some of them sinister, some of them dumb, and then lovely Alfred. David Haig leads them and drills in a flawless performance – riotously comical, absurd, but all seriousness in himself. A character that is hard to pin down on paper – but Haig captures him seamlessly, and feeds him to the audience with cockney aplomb and voyeuristic intent.
Radcliffe and McGuire are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern one dreams of. They are lightning quick, quivering with their words and their agitation. Neither are ever settled, both are completely captivating. Radcliffe’s Rosencrantz is classically naive, but so utterly desperate and helpless, wanting to dig his heels in, wanting so badly to jump out and exert that much sought after free will, but never able to. Radcliffe really is a phenomenal talent – we are lucky to have found him, and we are lucky that he became the talent that he is. McGuire’s Guildenstern is a canny wise-guy, quipping little titbits for Rosencrantz, moments away from lying back with a magazine on a deckchair and waiting for the whole thing to blow over, enjoying his ‘little slice of childhood’. That is, however, until their cannon is fixed on oblivion and then, more desperately than Rosencrantz ever had done, he fires against an inescapable fate. McGuire comes into his own in the last scene, weak and raging. Throwing free will against the wall – or is he?
The final scene between the pair, spotlighted against the curtain, reflecting on their own doom, is devastating. So subtle, no melodrama here, but mortally upsetting. McGuire’s last line is haunting. Stoppard’s words are staggering.
The claim, “We’ll know better next time.” is the real tragedy – more so than Hamlet. Because they won’t. They never will. Shakespeare has doomed them.
It’s easy to write off Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead as juvenile word play with no story and nothing to say. You could not be more wrong. Never has a modern playwright captured the human condition so delicately, so potently, and so clearly. Mortality is captured like a butterfly in Stoppard’s hands. For those three hours, he has complete control over it, and you – with him – delve into it. Then, after the bows, it flies away from you, leaving you bereft and pensive. It makes one ponder on death – not as some screaming, harrowing, agonising experience in which one falls about, but as ‘not being’. It’s going away and not coming back. Now you see me, now you don’t.
The players drown out Horatio’s final speech with their near-discordant melody, rising high above the language. These are the people who will play out Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s stories for the rest of time, repeat those same eventualities, always ending the same. The players are the most important characters, ultimately. The curtain falls, they are silhouetted, and they play us out.
I am moved. I am speechless. I’ve seen the production twice in the cinema, and I am in no doubt that it is superb.