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Fifty years ago the National Theatre produced a new play by an unknown playwright, at the company’s then-home at The Old Vic. The play was Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, an absurdist tragicomedy that paid homage to Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett yet was infused with its writer’s own dazzling intelligence and wit. It turned Tom Stoppard into an overnight sensation.
So there’s a historic hue to proceedings as the play returns to the same venue half a century on, in a production directed by Stoppard aficionado David Leveaux and starring headline-magnet Daniel Radcliffe in one of the lead roles. But the anniversary also, naturally, invites the question of whether an early play by a 20-something writer, part of whose charm is a kind of student-revue breeziness, still stands up to scrutiny.
The answer is, perhaps, more than ever. The themes bubbling beneath Stoppard’s existential scenario — not least his reflections on life itself as acting, and on the elusive nature of truth — have great resonance in the age of Donald Trump, Brexit, fake news and a growing disconnect between politicians and what might be called their audience. When a character declares that “truth is only that which is taken to be true,” the sentiment could have been written today.
In essence, the play is pure Stoppard: a killer conceit, extrapolated through endlessly erudite and witty wordplay. Rosencrantz (Radcliffe) and Guildenstern (Joshua McGuire) are the two minor characters from Hamlet who are brought center-stage, but consigned still to the margins of Shakespeare’s action as it now happens off stage. Since the “excellent good friends” are employed to spy on the prince, they can only remain frustratingly in the dark as to his state of mind and intentions, thus questioning their own purpose — not just in Elsinore, but in life.
As the pair mope, argue, play word games and toss coins to pass the time, their monotony is broken by The Player (David Haig) and his troupe, also bit players in Hamlet but with more import, rubbing salt in the wound of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s inconsequence.
The players also offer a key conduit as Stoppard weaves the action between his own text and Shakespeare’s, with Hamlet (Luke Mullins) and others also making fleeting appearances. Though the affinity with Waiting for Godot is evident and well-documented, it could be said that Stoppard’s hapless, ill-fated Everyman heroes are even more unfortunate than Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, being victims of a dual crisis, both existential and meta-theatrical.
This production has a great deal of fun with it all. The leads make a good team: Radcliffe as the dimmer, more light-hearted Rosencrantz, McGuire the intellectually pompous and agitated Guildenstern; one bearded and dark-eyed, the other curly-haired with a toothy grin. Together, they handle the intricate dialogue with aplomb, allowing the jokes to fizz and the anxiety to register. Their playing of the “questions” game displays wonderful verbal dexterity and timing.
For his part, Haig grabs the juicy role of The Player by the scruff of the neck, prowling around the two friends with a sleazy grace and delivering the character’s overblown yet brilliant expositions on the thespian calling — and malaise — with appropriate gusto.
And while it’s often deemed that “emotion” didn’t find its way into Stoppard’s work till later, here’s a reminder that this play is heavy with pathos. It’s there in the casting of two diminutive and very youthful-looking actors, who might be teenagers strayed into the lion’s den. Anna Fleischle’s set design, a cavernous space flanked by clouds and at one point seeming to funnel into nothingness, heightens the sense of their isolation.
The production still needs fine-tuning. Radcliffe doesn’t yet have the vocal measure of the space, and doesn’t register enough when he’s not in action. Even given the joke of the A-listers existing in the background, there’s no reason why the regal Danes can’t be as charismatic as the rag-tag troupe. Pacing in the first half needs to be crisper and some of the physical comedy sharper — a key moment in the running joke over the friends’ confused identities is totally squandered.
But the play stands up. And given its original Tony Award for best play, and both Leveaux’s successful Broadway productions of The Real Thing (2000) and Jumpers (2004), and Radcliffe’s stints in New York, a transfer seems not unlikely. In the meantime, the production will hit movie screens worldwide April 20 as part of the NT Live series.
Incidentally, Stoppard has recalled that Old Vic premiere in 1967, when he and his wife decided to stay in the pub at the first intermission, having heard an elderly gentlemen mutter “I do wish they’d get on.” For this premiere the now-illustrious knight stayed until the end. Perhaps he feels more sympathy himself with The Player’s belief in “the single assumption which makes our existence viable — that someone is watching.”
Venue: The Old Vic, London
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire, David Haig, Luke Mullins, William Chubb, Wil Johnson, Marianne Oldham, Helena Wilson
Director: David Leveaux
Playwright: Tom Stoppard
Set designer: Anna Fleischle
Costume designers: Anna Fleischle, Loren Elstein
Lighting designer: Howard Harrison
Music: Corin Buckeridge
Sound designer: Fergus O’Hare
Presented by: The Old Vic
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Taraji P. Henson