Tom Stoppard's debut 1966 play is proving to be timeless. Its existential concerns are perhaps no longer the stuff of modern philosophy, but they continue to haunt us. Do we know who we are? Are we just acting our parts in a pre-written play? Does life have any meaning if death is its inevitable conclusion?
Stoppard picks up two minor courtiers from Shakespeare's Hamlet and drops them in an unfamiliar place where they find themselves waiting for their future to reveal itself. They pass the time flipping coins and pondering the nature of probability, while the players provide intermittent diversion. Occasionally, they're swept up to play their parts in the production of Hamlet that we assume to be taking place off stage.
Stephen Unwin's English Touring Theatre production sets the play in a bland (albeit brand spanking new) rehearsal room, complete with stacked plastic chairs, white radiators and a bright green fire-exit sign above the door. The effect of this on the opening scene - Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in full Elizabethan costume playing with spare change - leads us to believe they are two actors filling time during rehearsal while awaiting their entrance. An interesting extension of the theatrical conceit, but it would have been a strange production these characters were rehearsing for - we seldom see the characters of Hamlet, Ophelia and the Player in their full archetypal glory.
This is a fast-paced production, which brings out the comedy. However, at times the actorly delivery alienates us from some of the play's subtleties. Of course, Stoppard is playing with the concept of theatricality - what it is to act, to use the imagination, how play is one of the only things that will satisfactorily pass the time until our deaths. However, the performances could afford a little more truth.
Not that the machine-gun speed with which Nicholas Rowe and James Wallace as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern deliver their lines should be sacrificed. But perhaps, underneath the ludicrousness of their fictitious situation and the intellectual rigour of their wordplay, these characters' fears, frustrations and confusions are not dissimilar to our own.
That said, this production makes up for what it lacks in understatement with a breathtaking energy and keen sense of fun. James Faulkner excels as the Player and Olly Fox's original music adds clarity to the potentially confusing play-within-a-play-within-a-play-structure.
- Antonia Windsor (reviewed at the Oxford Playhouse)