Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Posted on July 11, 2011

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This article was originally written for MouthLondon magazine

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern; Guildenstern and Rosencrantz: two minor characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet who become protagonists in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

The narrative dances around Shakespeare’s original lines as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern try to make sense of the confusing situation they find themselves in. Their lack of self-awareness (they even struggle to remember which of them is which) and life-purpose reflect the insignificance of their characters as penned by Shakespeare. But the play also raises a deeper question: are we all just minor characters, being led through life by a predetermined script?

The bleak set is appropriate considering the protagonists’ persistent preoccupation with death – a fate they will inevitably meet as they are hurtled along the trajectory of Shakespeare’s narrative. The emptiness of the set offers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern no clues as to where they are, who they are, or what exactly they are meant to be doing. This is made more poignant by Guildenstern’s retort: “Words. Words. They’re all we have to go on.”

Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker are brilliant as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, bringing comedy and vitality to the frequently cyclical dialogue. The two protagonists are often tipped as two halves of the same character and largely interchangeable, however Trevor Nunn’s production benefits from the carefully crafted individualities of the two leads. Barnett is amusing and sweetly naïve as Rosencrantz, while Parker as Guildenstern – the more fatherly of the two – strives haplessly for a sense of conviction.

A questionable ending led to much debate within our party, but did not sully my opinion of this dynamic production. Well worth a trip, if only to witness Barnett and Parker’s spirited game of Questions.

The production runs until 20 August at Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Tickets from £18.

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Posted in: Theatre Review