FringeReview UK 2017
Stoppard’s 1966 Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is revived at the Old Vic directed by David Levaux starring Joshua McGuire Daniel Radcliffe and David Haig. It features a set from Anna Fleischle making a giant flue of the Vic’s cavernous depths. Bernie Davis’ lighting ghosts the tenebrous limbo or brittly-bright daylight; Corin Buckeridge’s score waltzes Klezmer-like sounds.
David Levaux’s stylish revival of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at the Old Vic starring Joshua McGuire Daniel Radcliffe and David Haig wafts in with a chill blue-grey set from Anna Fleischle making a giant flue of the Vic’s cavernous depths; it’s clouded with scenic backdrops you might have seen centuries back, as befits the Players come to Elsinore. Bernie Davis’ lighting ghosts the tenebrous limbo or brittly-dazzling daylight occasionally thrown by passing actions, and Corin Buckeridge’s score hollows and waltzes particularly in the Klezmer-like sounds the Pierrot players themselves make, several whooping clarinets like proboscis.
Radcliffe’s Rosencrantz is the box-office draw here but with adroit casting it’s as Guildenstern that McGuire – the play’s dominant personality – sets pace and puns as well as limning an existential blank to which these players are thrust when not swelling a scene or three. The wings of Hamlet’s action here take centre, as Luke Mullins’ Hamlet – the kind of Hamlet so obviously typecast he might never be cast in it – struts through, with a pull of other characters like William Chubb’s energetic Polonius. The luckless duo are helplessly thrust wherever the action dictates. Even when they discover the document importing Hamlet’s death, and then the substitution, they’re able to take no action: they’re thought, and twitch bewilderment.
Radcliffe’s all bemusement, beautifully drawn out in a hollow-cheeked slow horror of his lot. He’s not sure he is Rosencrantz and nor are we. McGuire’s speculative angst has him prodding the confines of the stage and language as if he was performing an operation on himself and reading the anatomy lesson, as Andrew Marvell once put it. Of course it’s screamingly funny; it’s us. With no memory save that they were sent for, the courtiers while away their existence as we first encounter them in Rosencrantz’s ‘heads’ the sole game he wins against Guildenstern’s paralogical musings.
David Haig’s entrance breaks what even in this sparkling and pacey production hints as a blip of a longeur. Haig as the Player mirrors an energized version of themselves they can’t embrace, alienated into a twilit consciousness that they’ve no more than a goldfish’s reputed memory. All the Player does know, offering the boy Alfred then playing him himself, is that ‘We’re actors, we’re the opposite of people’ defining them all; and fake deaths are far more real, later proving it, than a real hanging he was specially permitted to mount; real ones look so unconvincing. ‘He did nothing but cry all the time… Never again.’ Haig’s flickering vulnerability – when the pair appear to have deserted his troupe’s performance and it’s not at first noticed – contrasts with the habited braggadocio he sloughs. Like them he’s existentially challenged by not existing long enough to know how others are swept up in the Hamlet narrative stream: it prints them all.
McGuire’s riposte to the Player is memorable: ‘It’s just a man failing to reappear…. a disappearance gaining weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death.’ That’s pure Rilke who was Czech too. Stoppard’s sources slip in under the Shakespearean cloak: McGuire milks or draws this out beautifully so much you have to find the quote after; his individual speeches hint at the individuality he’s barred from. Though snarling contempt on the audience ‘Not a move. They should burn to death in their shoes’, his keynote’s their burning bridges ‘nothing to show for our progress except a memory of smoke, and a presumption that once our eyes watered.’ McGuire’s sashay from affront to despair through bemusement to our amusement encompasses the open-mouth ‘lads’ Hamlet greets both with. Decorously laddish, ultimately clueless.
It’s the dark claiming this production that will enrich the tradition. Rosencrantz’s hapless ‘We’re overawed, that’s our trouble. When it comes to the point we succumb to their personality.’ Here the apparent decisiveness of Wil Johnson’s Claudius, Marianne Oldham’s Gertrude, Theo Ogundipe’s concluding Horatio, even Helen Wilson’s waft of Ophelia seem more vivid, a fantastical paradox where these indeed are the puppets. Wholly sent for, walking shadows with no volition even when stumbling on their own death warrant, the vividness of both parties confirms these two as more alive because they know they’re dead. And Haig’s knowing he’s the opposite of a person somehow insulates his reflective volatility from extinction. On the fiftieth anniversary of its Old Vic debut, Stoppard’s early masterpiece still startles in such a first-rate revival, protesting life to the black-out.