“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
This article appears in the 15 Mar 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit and the break-up of Britain