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Why Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with Daniel Radcliffe is an unlikely success

The Old Vic’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead manages to make Tom Stoppard's out-of-fashion absurdism work. 

“The only beginning is birth and the only end is death,” says Guildenstern midway through the play that bears his name. “If you can’t count on that, what can you count on?” This is a Tom Stoppard play, so you can also count on sharp dialogue, philosophical digressions and self-aware humour. Sometimes, this is genuinely funny; at others, it teases theatregoers into laughing to prove that they are sophisticated enough to get the joke. (At one point, Rosencrantz yells, “Fire!” and then explains to an alarmed Guildenstern: “It’s all right: I’m demonstrating the misuse of free speech.”)

The star power is provided by Harry Potter’s Daniel Radcliffe, whose casting as the less loquacious Rosencrantz is endearing. On red carpets and in press interviews, DanRad radiates an air of perpetual apology – for being too rich and too famous, for taking up roles that might otherwise have gone to someone in a garret. So he’s a tough sell as a leading man; but he is perfectly cast here as a character saddled with the nagging feeling that something very bad is happening just on the edge of his vision.

This makes the players’ rehearsal of The Murder of Gonzago, which anchors Act III of Hamlet, unexpectedly moving. After the dumb show that so upsets the guilty Claudius, we learn how the story would have ended: two friends go with Gonzago’s son to England, where they are hanged as spies. Radcliffe’s Rosencrantz – who has no idea that this will also be his fate – looks at the player spy, mimicking death, and notices that their coats are similar colours. His face clouds with a momentary almost-understanding. Then he shakes his head to clear the thought, saying: “No, I don’t know you, do I? Yes, I’m afraid you’re quite wrong. You must have mistaken me for someone else.”

Elsewhere, the production is anything but quiet. The players are done up like circus clowns, bringing on their own instruments. David Haig threatens to steal the show as their irrepressible cockney leader, intimating that even his tragedies can have a happy ending, if you catch his drift. When Rosencrantz asks if the presence of the two of them is enough to put on a show, he replies: “For an audience, disappointing. For voyeurs, about average.” (Incidentally, the jokes about pimping out a boy actor have just about survived five decades of changing tastes, but an enterprising young writer should write the metafiction Get Your Skirt Off, Alfred, featuring the existential ­musings of the poor lad when he’s not being offered as a sex slave to Rosencrantz.)

Special mention should go to Joshua McGuire, who plays Guildenstern with gabby desperation. What initially recommended him to the casting director might have been his height: he is the same size as Daniel Radcliffe, so in scenes with taller actors they look like a matching pair – a surrealist Samwise and Frodo. (McGuire’s demeanour reminds me of a smaller Tom Hollander, which until now I didn’t believe was possible.) But his delivery, too, is pitch-perfect. The play clips along and finishes at two and a half hours, before it would have outstayed its welcome.

The revival is an unlikely success. It has been a decade since I last read the text of Rosencrantz, and I had forgotten that it owes almost as much to Samuel Beckett as it does to Shakespeare: it is, in essence, Waiting for Hamlet. This absurdist style is wildly out of step with current trends in theatre. The overt stageyness of the crosstalk feels as old-fashioned now as the romantic full-dress productions of Shakespeare that it mocks must have done in 1966.

Hamlet is rarely played with ruffs and rounded vowels any more, as Robert Icke’s new production at the Almeida reminds us. Even the Globe (at least until next year) is in the hands of an artistic director who believes in – gasp – artificial lighting and sound.

It feels cruel to praise the Almeida production when it’s sold out except for day seats, but it’s the best Hamlet I have ever seen. For once, I didn’t keep thinking of that line from Blackadder addressed to Pitt the Younger – “Get out, you nauseating adolescent!” – because Andrew Scott’s Dane is driven by anger as much as melancholy, turning on a sixpence into terrifying darkness. (Fans of his role as Moriarty in the BBC’s Sherlock will know what I mean.)

Icke is a director who loves a spectacle, and here there is plenty of hoopla: snatches of pop music, video feeds, a triple-depth stage that allows actors to watch each other without understanding the full story. His Ghost is truly scary, suggesting that he saw Ghostwatch or The Blair Witch Project too early in his childhood. Yet the text still reigns, albeit freshened by decisions such as running the first of the two intervals when Claudius storms out of The Murder of Gonzago. It’s a play within a play, after all, and Stoppard didn’t invent the uneasy relationship between Hamlet’s actors and its audience.

“Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” will be broadcast live to 700 cinemas on 20 April

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 16 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain

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The Gallows Pole's ultra-violence turns reading into a kind of dare

Author Benjamin Myers's capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

Here is a tip for the squeamish when reading a Ben Myers novel. Imagine the worst thing that could happen to the characters, and then drop the book, because whatever Myers has imagined will definitely be worse than your version. The Gallows Pole is Myers’s sixth novel, and its territory is recognisably his own.

A northern, rural setting: here, the Yorkshire moors. An inspired-by-true-events story: this time, the Cragg Vale Coiners, a notorious ­late-18th-century gang of forgers. And a profane lyricism punctuated by the kind of ultra-violence that turns reading into a kind of dare. As in Ted Hughes’s Crow poems or David Peace’s Red Riding sequence, Myers’s capacity for the grotesque is constantly threatening to breach your tolerance of it.

“People will always need walls. Boundaries are what makes us civilised,” Myers has an itinerant “waller” say here. But the author is interested in what happens when those boundaries are uncertain, or broken. Beyond our self-created limits, there is a wildness both dreadful and transfixing, and David Hartley – the King of the Coiners – is its avatar here.

When we first meet him, we are told that he “appeared of the earth, of the moors. A man of smoke and peat and heather and fire, his body built for the hills.” A man of viciousness and visions, who sees stagmen dancing on the moors.

That relationship between man and land (and it is men, because Myers’s world is ­intensely masculine) is about to be ruptured for ever. The Industrial Revolution is coming. Ground that was a birthright to the labourers and farmers of Yorkshire is being bought up for factories; capitalists are even re-carving the waterways. Hartley and his men will take no share in the wealth this generates. They are the left-behind, and in this context, forging is not merely theft: it’s insurrection.

“Clip a coin and fuck the crown” is the Coiners’ cry. Their attack on the currency is also an attack on the nation state attempting to impose its rule on the countryside. Money is a circulating manifestation of the social contract, passing the impress of authority from hand to hand, and Hartley wants none of it.

The government takes their threat absolutely seriously and sends the relentless exciseman William Deighton (or “that cunt Deighton”, as Hartley inevitably calls him) after the gang. It is clear from early on that Hartley and Deighton, bound by mutual hate long before they ever meet, are willing themselves to destroy one another. Coercion and rebellion mirror each other, drawing purpose from their opposed positions.

Although the setting is historical, Myers’s obsession with place and power is urgently contemporary. Society is fragile. The walls can, and do, collapse.

Today the political shocks of Brexit and Trump make this obvious in a way it hasn’t been for a long time: the strand of malevolent machismo that seemed like deliberately shocking Gothic in Myers’s 2014 novel Beastings feels closer to home now. It seems as though Myers, seer-like, has merely had to wait for the world outwardly to become as he long ago divined it to be. Yet that is not to say there is no invention here, and Myers’s use of language in particular is notably creative.

The story is told between terse, third-person portions, and Hartley’s diary entries are written in a rich pidgin of semi-literacy. It resembles more than anything the dense, punning future dialect of Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker; and like that novel it suggests a society where the bonds are so frayed that even words are unreliable. But where Hoban can fairly claim use of any word ever to have existed, Myers’s playfulness sometimes presses at the edges of his historical fiction: when Hartley writes “foghorn concollusion” for “foregone conclusion”, for example, the maritime vocabulary is jarring coming from this landlocked man.

Foregone conclusions are a problem in another way. Even if you don’t already know about the Coiners, Myers foreshadows the story’s end well in advance, and the plot occasionally sags.

Though his general register is frankly abrasive, Myers sometimes sacrifices tension to sentiment in the lead-up to a set piece: when a character has an unusual access of tenderness, you can hear death stalking in the background. Another weakness of his is in writing women and children – the latter tend to the syrupy and the former barely exist.

In The Gallows Pole, if a character isn’t likely to raise a hand in anger, he isn’t likely to interest Myers. His element is violence and, in his element, he is thrilling: intelligent, dangerous and near untouchable.

The Gallows Pole
Benjamin Myers
Bluemoose Books, 363pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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