Very Much Alive: Review of STC’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
It’s no mistake that this year both Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (1966) and Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) are featuring together as part of the Sydney Theatre Company’s season. Both are cornerstone texts in theatre of the absurd, and although there are similar themes between them – such as the Beckettian pseudo-couple, a fruitless pursuit for meaning and of course the delightful word-play – at their core, each play is dealing with something very different.
Stoppard’s play centers around two very minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, a pair of courtiers who are charged to discover the nature of the malady that afflicts the prince, and then transport him to Britain. Insofar as the plot exists, this is pretty much it and the pair spends a good portion of the play struggling to establish what their significance in the Hamlet plot is. This level of intertextuality provides a lot of comedy however it is also vital to understanding Stoppard’s broader message. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters stuck in a story that isn’t theirs, and their actions are compelled by the whims of others. Stoppard is dealing with the conflicting forces of Determinism and Free Will, and arguably comes down in favour of Determinism. Both men are unable to understand their place in the story and have no ability to control where they go or what they do. Indeed, when they end up on a boat to England they can’t recall how they got there or why they are there. By the end of the play we come to realize that their lives are set on a pre-determined course from which they cannot escape, and even when it is revealed that the course leads to their deaths they are unable to prevent it – indeed, they don’t even try to.
Stoppard is of course making a comment about life in general: we all live with forces that constantly compel us, and although we may believe ourselves to be the protagonist in our own stories we may in fact be the minor characters of a much greater story in which we have no agency. Just like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, we are all on a ship within which we have the freedom to move anywhere, but ultimately it is compelling us toward a single destination (death?) and we have no power to alter it. Unlike Beckett’s characters who constantly approach death but never get there, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do. So what can we do? Laugh. Director Simon Philips has a done a wonderful job of bringing out the comedy, and has made the most of not only Stoppard’s dialogue, but of the staging and utilization of numerous aspects within the play, such as the troupe of travelling actors and the portrayal of the characters within Hamlet. This hits home the idea of a play-within-a-play, adding both humour and meaning to the production as it engages with ideas of reality, truth, artifice and meaning.
Absurdist theatre is distinctive for its lack of plot. There is an obvious disadvantage to this, for it means that the dialogue must work extra hard to make up for it. Tom Stoppard is one of only a handful of playwrights who manage to compensate – Stoppard’s is pure artistry. Yet to pull this off, the players must be masters of language. Both Schmitz and Minchin have great command. Great, but not perfect. Truthfully, there is little to criticise of the pair, however the average punter would welcome, at least initially, a decrease in pace. A slowed pace would simply ensure the true enjoyment of the genius of Stoppard, which is, and always will be, the words being spoken. So, to the cast then:
Simply put, Toby Schmitz is Guildenstern. With the intelligence and diction of Benedict Cumberbatch, the physicality of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow and the comic timing of John Cleese, Schmitz seems born to play Stoppard. As a colleague put it, he is the fantastically ‘high-camp’ version of Guildenstern, and produces a flawless delivery in every measurable way. One cannot stress how perfectly he milks every joke. Schmitz is destined for great things.
Playing against Schmitz is the wondrous Tim Minchin as Rosencrantz. Minchin has cleverly given the character a sunny disposition whilst possessing a slowed cranial activity that is always just behind the beat. Minchin, being a comedian, is no stranger to the science of comedy and timing. He too produces a flawless comic performance. However, there are a few moments where Minchin just misses the dramatic height. These are either ill-judged or sections which lack direction, but generally this is by the way. He and Schmitz are, for all intents and purposes, a perfect pair.
A pleasant surprise came from Ewen Leslie as the chief player to Hamlet’s acting troupe. In gait and voice he was the embodiment of the pirate Blackbeard, and is hardly recognisable in doing so. Leslie is just as funny and just as capable as Schmitz and Minchin. He was a much needed leader to the troupe he led though suffered, like the others, from sporadic inaudibility. Once again however, this is a minor flaw.
A brief mention must go to Tim Walter as the ‘stark raving sane’ Hamlet. He produced a fun-filled, kooky Hamlet, but was ready to rise to the dramatic moments when the script called for it. Special, special mention goes to the Acting Troupe, making up the majority of the support cast. They were the stage version of Circ de Soleil: beautifully crafted, wonderfully timed, perfectly subtle and completely magical. It is a real treat to watch, and a refreshing change.
The costumes are also very worthy of mention, fabulous and gaudy and again creating the distinction between the play and the play-within-a-play. Likewise, the simple set with the tapering vanishing point, reminiscent of M. C Escher’s geometric explorations, evoked ideas of the pre-determined path we all walk. It was a nice touch and designer Gabriela Tylesova should be congratulated.
This is a brilliant production and proof that the STC can stage a show of true quality and delight.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is playing at the STC until the 14th of September. For more details see: