YOU’D BE DEAD WRONG TO MISS THIS DAZZLER
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead established Tom Stoppard as one of the most inventive, daring and dazzling theatrical voices of the 20th century.
R & G Are Dead began life as a fringe play for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966. It was the talk of the festival and when it was produced the following year at the Old Vic Theatre in London, it made Stoppard an overnight sensation. Here we are 51 years later and Alberta Theatre Projects is presenting The Shakespeare Company and Hit & Myth Productions’ staging of Stoppard’s mind-boggling dissection of, among other things, Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the absurdity of chance and fate, the inevitability of death and the conflict between art and reality.
In the wrong hands, R & G Are Dead could be pretty heady, intimidating, depressing stuff but this R & G is in the rightest of right hands from its designers and director to its killer cast.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two minor characters in Hamlet. They are university friends of the troubled prince and are summoned by Hamlet’s uncle, the new king, to spy on Hamlet and discover why he is so out-of-sorts. They keep getting instructions from the king only to be left to their own befuddled devices.
In Stoppard’s play, the action of Shakespeare’s play, for the most part, takes place offstage except for those scenes from Hamlet in which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern appear. Then, the Hamlet characters rush on stage confounding and confusing poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern even more.
The two hapless friends also get to meet a travelling band of players who are on their way to perform at Elsinore Castle and who will eventually conspire with Hamlet to trap his uncle into admitting he killed Hamlet’s
father to get both the crown and Hamlet’s mother.
Julie Orton as Guildenstern, the more astute of the duo, is far more concerned about the lack of information and control she and Rosencrantz (Myla Southward) have over their lives. Southward’s Rosencrantz seems to accept things as inevitable, so she’s willing to go along with the befuddling events thrust upon them.
Both Orton and Southward are as skilled at physical comedy as they are at mastering the verbal gymnastics of Stoppard’s language. They are wonderful Everyman clowns, but the brilliance of their performances is that, as the evening progresses and pathos replaces comedy, they become genuinely sympathetic characters.
The final scenes on the boat to England in Act 2 have some genuinely heartfelt moments and we rightfully mourn their deaths as does the ambassador from England who announces they are dead.
The casting of Orton and Southward by The Shakespeare Company’s artistic director Haysam Kadri is indeed a coup, which extends to the casting of the travelling players who also play the court characters from Hamlet.
Mark Bellamy, Natascha Girgis, Daniel Fong, Braden Griffiths, Natasha Strickey, Tenaj Williams and Robert Klein are among Calgary’s finest actors and they have great fun switching from ribald troubadours to the court of Elsinore. They know just how far to take their antics in both worlds. Less would have made the Hamlet scenes dull and much more would have made the players’ scenes too rambunctious.
Williams’ Hamlet is a tortured soul indeed. He is the prince of melancholy.
Leading the troupe of vagabonds is Christopher Hunt’s Player King, the aging thespian who is as wise as he is scheming and lecherous. It’s a tour de force performance from an actor who never ceases to amaze.
Director Glynis Leyshon has found the essential balance between farce and comedy and pathos and melodrama and her dumb show and players’ scenes are among the best I’ve seen for a R & G Are Dead production. It is clear Leyshon not only knows Stoppard’s play thoroughly, but loves it, and she goes a long way to spreading that love beyond the footlights.
Hanne Loosen’s costumes speak volumes about these characters and the theatrical and real worlds they inhabit and they live so well on Scott Reid’s set and under David Fraser’s lighting. Allison Lynch’s original music helps set and underscore the mood of the proceedings without ever being intrusive.
Stoppard’s R & G Are Dead presents almost as many challenges for its audiences as it does for its designers, director and cast. The wordplay and philosophical musings are fun, but also unnerving the more we realize just how much we can see of ourselves in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
R & G Are Dead has a limited run in the Arts Commons Martha Cohen Theatre until Oct. 21. I caught it at its first preview performance with an audience that had as much fun as the actors themselves. This is world-class theatre at its most exhilarating and it would be foolish to miss it.
Actors Julie Orton and Myla Southward are inspired choices by artistic director Haysam Kadri to play the leads in Alberta Theatre Projects’ Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, writes Louis B. Hobson.