Tom Stoppard has often been referred to as one of the greatest modern playwrights, Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead being the first of his plays to gain widespread recognition and acclaim from critics and audiences alike. This production by the UCLU Drama Society was as witty as it was interesting, wonderful acting and staging combining to produce a thoroughly memorable performance.
The plot is centred on two supporting characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet: the comic duo of Rosencratz and Guildenstern. Whilst the infamous events of Hamlet occur in the background, Rosencratz and Guildenstern Are Dead takes place “in the wings,” the pair virtually oblivious to what is happening around them. They become the heroes rather than the extras, the narrative manipulated and twisted into an absurdist tragi-comedy, Shakespeare’s and Stoppard’s action sometimes separate, sometimes colliding. As the pair try to understand where they have got to and where they are going, they engage in philosophical, comic (and sometimes pointless) repartee, the relationship between the two being what drives the play forward. Whilst what the audience knows as Hamlet moves gradually closer to its climax, Rosencratz and Guildenstern engage in debates about the uncertainty of language, free will, and the confusing nature of existence itself.
For a play as experimental as this one, it is vital that the acting is believable, in order to ground the action in some sort of fictional reality. Luckily, the combination of Vincenzo Monachello as Rosencratz and Tom Craig as Guildenstern was stellar, the chemistry between the two engaging enough to give the play a soul. Indeed, the duo were so synchronised that it was difficult to tell where Rosencratz ended and Guildenstern began. Each retained their own identity whilst paradoxically being two halves of a whole, the roles of the comedian and the straight-man constantly switching. Even their costumes matched: both dressed in white, one wearing a black shoe on their left foot, the other on the right. This sort of attention to detail is what makes a production great. The pattern of Shakespeare’s supporting characters as Stoppard’s leads continued, Avy Tennison brilliantly funny as the Head Player, adding to the bizarre atmosphere of the piece. Her troop of Players provided consistent laughs but got to the core of the play at the same time, the closeness between tragedy and comedy an ever present theme. Eddie-Joe Robinson was suitably brooding as Hamlet, the meditative protagonist of Shakespeare’s drama squashed into the role of grumpy teenager by Stoppard, the same lines seeming different amongst the nonsensical ramblings of Monachello and Craig. “Get thee to a nunnery!” was almost comical when seen through the eyes of the dumbstruck Rosencratz and Guildenstern.
The staging was equally clever, most of the action taking place behind the stage door, which stood upstage centre and opened intermittently, where the action of Hamlet was only a short step away. Beale’s direction proved thoroughly effective here, the thin wall between Rosencratz and Guildenstern’s existence and that of Shakespeare’s drama emphasised. The same parallels between comedy and tragedy that the Players highlighted were made obvious here, the stage being surrounded by a series of doors. A door implies an entrance or exit, but to where? And why? The ambiguous nature of the play was reflected in the questioning nature of the staging itself, making the atmosphere as a whole interestingly uncertain.
The UCLU Drama Society has succeeded in producing a funny and thought-provoking adaptation of a challenging play. It was a challenging joy to watch as a result, and I look forward to what future productions they have in store.