Tom Stoppard’s Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead does exactly that – but with a bit of a twist. The two minor characters – who serve minor purposes and achieve nothing in the play, exist only for the play. So rather than backstory, we get existential crisis and a whole lot of comedy.
Radcliffe was made for the stage and is a hilarious presence as the Rozencranz who is so lost and confused that he doesn’t even remember which one of the two he is. Along with a similarly statured Joshua McGuire, the two men are dwarfed by the expansive stage, compounding their smallness and insignificance.
This production was the 50th Anniversary production of the original play. I can’t vouch as to whether it has done it justice, because it is the first time I have ever seen it. However, for a play that is so clever, intellectual and complex, it was abundantly clear in its purpose and it’s comedy – with the fast-paced interactions between the two eponymous characters always witty, humorous and never missing the mark.
The hammed up production of Hamlet in the background was incredibly effective in achieving the meta-theatre the production aims to, and the ‘play-within-a-play-within-a-play’ was superbly achieved by the travelling players who acted out the fates of the poor protagonists. You might expect such complex, high-flying ideas to be mind boggling, however there was an accessible and easy simplicity in the comedy of these scenes.
You will need a working knowledge of Hamlet to really get anything out of this play, but that is just the nature of the beast. However, there is enough comedy in the physical acting and dialogue to allow you to relax, and enjoy it rather than treating the whole thing as an intellectual exercise.
The play equally has its elements of tragedy – these characters, who have no lives outside of the story they are confined to, face a not dissimilar crisis to anyone else who may feel they are trapped in a certain kind of life, or simply just lost without clear direction. The idea then that they are doomed to repeat this tragedy forever is almost heartbreaking – I nearly condemned Shakespeare for such callous treatment of the two men. Of course this is Stoppard’s crowning achievement – that his play is so emotive he draws such reactions out through a story which you know is not real, and which constantly tells you it’s not real. And hats have to be tipped to the two leads here who so brilliantly achieve this in their performance also.
Overall, this play does what all the best tragedies should: it makes you think. It also does what all the best comedies do: it stops you overthinking and makes you simply enjoy it. As a combination of the two it is the quintessential tragicomedy and this anniversary production is truly worthy of that title.