Playing Death

Tom Stoppard: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, The Old Vic, London (Director: David Leveaux)

By Sascha Krieger

At the end, there is a familiar display: a pile of bodies covering the stage, a king, a queen, a prince, all slain, lamented, mourned. It’s the end of Hamlet, a royal family all wiped out, a Norwegian prince vowing to remember them an d to restore the realm’s greatness in their name. However, as any student of history knows: for every „great person“ mourned, there are hundreds, thousands discarded. Nameless, faceless victims who do not count or matter and never have. The waste of human ambition, thrown on history’s garbage heap. William Shakespeare knew about this and yet, he did play this game, too. His nameless masses, sacrificed without hesitation to advance once objectives, are named Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. At the end of David Leveaux‘ production, they are missing from the elaborate tableau of carnage. They die off stage in Hamlet  and they do so here. Just before the final image, they have their lights turned off, literally. Footnotes, material to be dispensed with.

The Old Vic (Image: Sascha Krieger)

In Tom Stoppard’s play, they take centre stage. The backlground moves to the centre, the centre becomes the fringe. but nothing really changes. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern remain pawns in somebody else’s game. They have no right to individuality, to their own value. So much so that they even forget their own names. Not only does everyone else mix them up, they do so themselves. Of course, they are close relatives of Vladimir and Estragon. They play games to kill the time, constantly want to leave but don’t, they cannot remember where they’ve come from and where they’re going to. Their world is a constant in-between, a limbo they’re caught in. The difference with Beckett’s heroes is that there is a context. Their world is absurd, it is one in which the coin flip is always heads, but it is a recognizable one as well. A world of power in which some matter and others don’t. Luke Mullins‘ Hamlet is a cool, arrogant, aloof, only too willing to sacrifice those he hardly regards as human. The brooding prince, the embodiment of conscious – an almost fascist oppressor who values human life according its usefulness.

Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe play the title characters in the Old Vic’s production 50 years after the play had its London premiere in this very spot. McGuire plays a brash, optimistic, loudmouth Guildenstern who might be Rosencrantz, a man who refuses to believe in his meaninglessness, drifting into self-deception before fading altogether. Radcliffe plays the dim-witted version of the two, hardly any individuality to start with, self-conscious, shy naive, yet, in the end resignedly accepting of his fate, in his simplicity more clear than the smart one of the two. They form a congenial duo, playing of each other, displaying perfect timing in this fast-paced back and forth comedy without every forgetting about the darkness they’re facing. Especially Radcliffe’s Rosencrantz who might be Guildenstern is quietly obsessed with death, with annihilation, with meaninglessness. Slowly they come to realise that they never meant anything, were not allowed to, that this was never part of the plan.

„We perform“, Radcliffe once says. And: „I’m only good at support.“ They both are. They have their roles to play, their life and death are part of a cynical, destructive drama we tend to call history. Enter David Haig. The veteran actor plays The Player, head of the troupe whose play plays such a pivotal role in Hamlet. A self-assured illusionist, who takes on death by playing it, accepting it and asserting control over it, he is a strong third force in this production. Haig tries on the comedic and the tragedic, he plays a man who constantly acts, who knows that everyone does but he is aware of this. Anna Fleischle’s set emphasises the theatrical: Curtains are constantly opened and closed, sometimes exhibiting sketched scenery like the ship that becomes the protagonists‘ fate. A cloudy sky extends over much of the stage, an empty setting that needs no humans, no illusions of meaning, that reminds of the surrealism of René Magritte, an absurd world in which human ambition is just an invisible vapor that doesn’t matter. Theatre does. The Player’s troupe is melancholy, ghost-like, dreamy bunch, not quite of this world who conquer death by making it their own. At the very end, while Fortinbras is still speaking, they took over in a sad and celebratory dance. A curtain goes up, all become shadows. Moving joyfully in celebration of a life that has no meaning. Or gets one by acknowledging its futility. We call it theatre. It is which triumphs in Stoppard’s play – and in this breathtakingly entertaining, profoundly touching and masterfully intelligent production.

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