Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead: “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds. If it were a bet you wouldn’t take it.”

At the Old Vic until Saturday 29th April 2017

**** (4 stars)

As much as I love a moment of quiet contemplation, there is something awful to me about a forced focus on the inescapable factuality of one’s own mortality. This is of course a recurring theme of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The clue is in the title really. In this 50th anniversary celebration directed by David Leveaux Daniel Radcliffe is Rosencrantz and Joshua McGuire Guildenstern. Both are brilliant, balancing the play’s bleak introspection, mostly delivered by Radcliffe, with a sparky Chuckle Brothers cluelessness.  Death is not being – it is being trapped in a box without any awareness, not asleep, not awake. Could it even be being trapped on a boat on route to England, with nowhere to go? The slip into humour in this particular musing characterises the duality which is at the heart throughout: “Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You’d have a chance at least. You could lie there thinking: Well, at least I’m not dead.” Daniel Radcliffe also delivers the lines which ask, at what point as children do we have the shattering realisation that we must die? Rosencrantz does not himself remember having such a horrible thought.  We are then born with the intuition that we are mortal, with the knowledge “there’s only one direction and time is its only measure.” It is a recurring joke that Radcliffe’s character’s memory is rather hopeless – he can’t remember what happened the morning they received the royal summons, what he has been instructed to do, his name even. He is comically slow to catch on to his relatively quicker witted counterpart’s suggestions (“you’re quicker than your friend”, the Player declares, as he tries to squeeze gold out of the pair for a performance when they first meet on the road). David Haigh as the Player is my favourite, a confident thespian with a powerful assertiveness  herding and directing his unruly, underpaid mishmash of players, cajoling attractive female substitute Alfred  in and out of his skirt on demand and bellowing “I need to learn my lines” at McGuire’s waffle.

As the players act out the bloodbath at the end of Hamlet, slumped in a pile neat leftovers from the previous scene, the macabre music reminds me a little of The Threepenny Opera. They finish with a dramatic flourish to be proud of, shadows cast against the white curtain – closing as creepy shadow puppets, fading figments of a performance, to die and be reborn in new roles. The best actors play dead over and over. The Player acts out his own death in fact and bursts back to life amidst jumps and surprise (“you had me fooled”). The players act out the tragedy in silent, brilliantly lit drama – it gets even better when the lights are cut for the Player to make a point to his audience, the spectacle mocked as things get a bit too frisky between Gertrude and the King. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern stand beneath the players acting out their own deaths. It is painful seeing them observe the pair’s collapse into sacks. Then the next scene opens with them waking in the very same spot. Death is guaranteed for them from the beginning, the royal summons and subsequent actions arbitrary: “there must have been a moment, at the beginning, where we could have said no. But somehow we missed it”.

As well as black intensity there are moments of for me much needed comedy, still intertwined with death mostly of  course. Seeing Hamlet dragging Polonius off to bury, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern excitedly form a barrier with their belts, determined not to let their ‘friend’ pass and instead to halt him in his tracks and demand explanation. They are completely unnoticed by Hamlet who neatly turns off the stage and entirely evades them. “Look on every exit as being an entrance somewhere else” Stoppard says. This play is itself a new window presenting Hamlet from the perspective of two peripheral characters who are interchangeable even to each other, exchanging names and directions with ease.  Radcliffe’s matter of fact humour makes me chuckle (Guildenstern: “You can’t not be on a boat” Rosencrantz: “I’ve frequently not been on boats”). England is a “conspiracy of cartographers” and  Hamlet could be “stark raving sane”.

Anna Fleischle’s design certainly makes the most of the Old Vic’s cavernous space. The set of painted clouds makes me feel it could all be a bit of a dream even as the actors bow and Radcliffe neatly retrieves roses thrown on stage, while Harry Potter fans queue down the road in hope of signatures. Time may be moving forward in the only direction it knows but the stage is also shaped by the magic that has come before,  the play itself performed on the very same stage 50 years ago.





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