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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at Theatre Royal Haymarket


  (L to R) Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker/ Ph: Catherine Ashmore

When Tom Stoppard wrote Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead back in 1966, his blueprint – Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot – was still relatively obscure. Barely a decade old, it was considered difficult, to say the least. In fact, where the majority of theatregoers were concerned, Godot was virtually unknown territory.
Jump forward half a century to 2009, when in this very theatre Ian McKellen and Patrick Stewart so vividly triumphed as Beckett’s vaudevillian duo forever stuck beneath a leafless tree. In the process these two knights of the realm clearly illustrated why Beckett’s play has become one of the pivot points in modern theatre.
So what sort of hubris lured director Trevor Nunn to use the bare branches of another dead tree for Stoppard’s own vaudeville duo? Nunn maintains that he has waited 40 years to direct this script. I’m afraid he may have waited too long.
Turning Shakespeare inside out and upside down, Stoppard maneuvers two of the most dispensable minor characters ever conceived into a central position via convoluted puns, collegiate debate, and knowingly arched eyebrows over the Bard. This incessant wisecracking wordplay eventually becomes numbingly predictable. Ultimately the evening turns out to be a self-congratulatory chance for audiences to pat their own backs over how clever they have been at catching Stoppard’s allusions. Unfortunately, especially with Beckett now so clearly on the horizon, Stoppard’s smart-aleck attack now reveals itself as smart-ass instead.
The central casting gimmick of this production actually works quite well. Nunn has chosen two of the original actors from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys to play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – and of course one of the running jokes is that not even they themselves are all that certain about who is who. Samuel Barnett (Rosencrantz) is boyishly perplexed, while Jamie Parker (Guildenstern) is the more belligerently confounded of the duo. They both do their utmost to convince us, but it is damned hard when nearly every line either of them utters seems to come bracketed by implied quotation marks.
The Player King is Chris Andrew Mellon. He has stepped into the breach for Tim Curry, who had to withdraw for health reasons. He has a fine line in bombast and thoroughly relishes every one of his overripe thespian clichés, to say nothing of his incessant smarmy innuendoes.
Is it a double bluff that Nunn has directed the other characters in Shakespeare’s play to come across as really not very good actors? As a result, it seems as if Rosencrantz and Guildenstern aren’t caught up in one of the world’s great tragedies, but are blundering along in some kind of blighted amateur theatrical. Jack Hawkins’ Hamlet is goofily over the top, his mother and uncle Claudius are ludicrously stilted, and Michael Benz as Horatio wouldn’t even make it into a second-rate student revue.
Simon Higlett’s clean set design under a lowering heaven lit by Tim Mitchell is spot on. As always, costumier Fotini Dimou dresses her cast to perfection. Though I do think that the music from Steven Edis is more than a smidgen too grandiose.
We all know that Stoppard has gone on to do a multitude of great things. But, in the end, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern ends up mirroring one of the classic first reviews of Godot: “A play where nothing happens – twice.”

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