Shakespeare ZA is delighted to welcome guest blogger Christiaan Naudé, a Master of Arts English literature student and assistant English lecturer at the University of Pretoria, who reviews National Theatre Live's production of Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.
The set design for the opening act of David Leveaux’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead suggests at once some sort of purgatorial rehearsal room and airport departure hall: a solitary ladder is placed downstage against a capacious background of painted-cloudscape panels extending some distance upstage. This sense of scale, created by Anna Fleischle and co., perfectly stages Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s reflections on their comically contingent identities as they await their cues in the narrative gaps around and within Shakespeare’s Hamlet.
Daniel Radcliffe plays a sheepish Rosencrantz whose ingenuous puzzlement and bouts of lugubriousness are balanced throughout by an affability that makes for an endearing stage presence. Radcliffe’s muted performance is buoyed by the nervous energy of Joshua McGuire’s Guildenstern who, in a more effusive manner, though with marginally less range than one would have liked, Socratically questions the inscrutable stage directions of existence. Both players, however, dextrously deliver Stoppard’s brisk rhetorical fencing, maintaining expert comic teamwork throughout.
A magnetic David Haig commands all attention in his appearance as The Player, a vagabond-troubadour and exploitation-thespian who evokes both an existentialist Falstaff and a louche theatre manager from Dagenham (and it is appropriate that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern should be upstaged even in their own play). Haig, along with his dubious troupe of actors, are compelling, especially during their staging of The Murder of Gonzago, the famously wooden play-within-a-play in Hamlet. Here, they turn the dumb-show of Gonzago into a scandalous pantomime resembling Pyramus and Thisby from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
The bemused duo continues to invite mirth and pathos as they become embroiled in Hamlet’s whirlwind of events, in which Wil Johnson’s Claudius hurries through his lines while Marianne Oldham’s Gertrude looks on sternly, William Chubb’s Polonius sneers, Helena Wilson’s Ophelia flits about briefly, and the elusive Hamlet, played by Luke Mullins as a gaunt, overgrown prepschool boy, scoffs at Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s entreaties. Even the final dramatic monologue by Theo Ogundipe’s Horatio becomes drowned out by the jazzy strains from The Player’s troupe. While these performances delight, their stage-time feels somewhat rushed, though this pacing serves to bring about the gyre of confusion that the two protagonists find themselves in (in this play, after all, it becomes difficult to distinguish the act from the acting).
McGuire and Radcliffe’s performance succeeds in conveying the fallible human consciousnesses simultaneously at the centre and on the margins of the action of the play; their exchanges succeed in creating a kind of incandescence that bounds the shadows looming at the corners of the stage.