After a short run on the open stage at Chichester, Trevor Nunn’s beautiful revival of Tom Stoppard’s first play comes into sharper focus at the classical Haymarket as the second offering in the director’s season (next up: Ralph Fiennes as Prospero).
What we lose in sweep as Hamlet washes over the hapless, philosophising courtiers, we gain in concentrated intermingling of the affairs at Elsinore and in the baffled banter of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. There’s also a much funnier slant on Hamlet itself, which keeps you guessing as Stoppard switches scenes around and toys with chronology.
This unmooring of one play as a confusing backdrop to the new one is all part of the fun, and Samuel Barnett’s Rosencrantz explodes with impatience as Hamlet (Jack Hawkins) consigns Ophelia (Katherine Press) to a nunnery – “It’s like living in a public park” – and sighs with boredom as the gloomy Dane embarks on “How all occasions.”
Tim Curry withdrew as the Player in Chichester and was replaced by his understudy, Chris Andrew Mellon, who has now grown magnificently into the role with the aid of a Shakespearean make-over and a great line in sly self-deprecation (“We’re actors; we’re the opposite of people”).
The Waiting For Godot parallel is extended, too, from the gnarled tree at the start to the Player’s Pozzo-like cry of “Onward” as the caravan of actors re-groups. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sucked into court affairs from the outside world and despatched on a ship of fools bearing their own death sentence; two of the players duplicate their costumes as they emerge from the barrels for the fight with the pirates.
The brilliant dialogue toys with philosophy and logic, performance and reality, theatre and life, with the “action” of the play-within-a-play subverting life itself and Jamie Parker’s bovine, baritone Guildenstern a perfect foil to Barnett’s edgily intoned and nimbly desperate partner in an enterprise they never sought but were “sent for.”