The panicking spies in Stoppard’s spotlight
The Old Vic
IT’S A happy — or should that be tragic? — coincidence that as this 50th anniversary production of Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough play opens on the stage where it was first seen (apart from an earlier tryout in Edinburgh), Hamlet, the work that inspired it, is enjoying an equally impressive revival at the Almeida.
You could do worse than visit the Almeida before The Old Vic. Because the better you know Hamlet, the more you will get out of Rosencrantz (played here by Daniel Radcliffe) and Guildenstern (Joshua McGuire) Are Dead.
For example, there’s a thrill to be had on the endlessly riffing fun Stoppard has misappropriating the names, just as Claudius does. Though like all great plays, Stoppard’s has its very own logic. For Shakespeare, Stoppard’s heroes were merely bit part characters — the patsies whose job it is to spy on Hamlet and who are dispatched to England as part of a conspiracy to kill the prince but instead end up being executed themselves. And in Stoppard’s play it’s this premonition of early death that haunts the duo while scenes from Shakespeare’s play flit in and out of the action from the wings.
With a beard that is the most noticeable feature on his somewhat pallid face, Radcliffe’s well-judged Rosencrantz embodies suppressed panic as he realises there is nothing to be done to divert his fate. Meanwhile, McGuire’s anxiety is expressed in explosions of thrillingly articulate verbosity. They make perfect, opposite foils for each other.
Of course, if Stoppard had been inspired by the Almeida’s production of Hamlet, with a female Guildenstern who, it is heavily implied, has a romantic past with Hamlet, one wonders how that might have played out in his play. But it is challenging enough to keep track of this angst-ridden existential mediation, without playing around with gender swaps.
The real revelation in David Leveaux’s production, other than the feather-light wit
Daniel Radcliffe (Rosencrantz) and Joshua McGuire (Guildenstern) with which Stoppard grapples with profoundly weighty themes, is David Haig as The Player. This the character who in Hamlet performs the dumb show that accuses the prince’s uncle of murder. Here we see him before and after that pivotal scene. And Haig’s version is an endlessly entertaining thespian — part pagan, part shaman and all showbiz. This is an actor who knows everything there is to know about the thing that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern fear most — dying on stage and off.