Books of 2017 vs. Theatre: Hamlet & Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at The Old Vic - DR

Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at The Old Vic – DR

Last week I was in London to see a few plays. Didn’t get a ticket to Moriarty and Lady Sibyl’s Hamlet but I did get a few other ones, including one for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard at The Old Vic theatre. Since I decided to read the play before seeing it to be sure to understand it all, I’ve decided to mix the literary chronicle with the Theatre one this time – and for all the plays I saw that week. 

Last November, while I was booking theatre tickets I discovered that there would be quite a bunch of plays I’d want to see – only they wouldn’t start before the next year. So I booked a few of them and planned myself a nice theatre binging week in London for March. I started with Much Ado About Nothing by the RSC at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, then continued quietly my theatre journey with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard at The Old Vic, starring Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire and David Haig.

When I read the play, I realized pretty quickly that I would have to re-read Hamlet first, so I stopped and did that, then came back to Ros’ and Guil’. Indeed, unlike what I first understood, Rosencreantz and Guildenstern Are Dead isn’t just a story involving two minor characters from the Shakespeare play but actually « Hamlet seen with the eyes of Ros’ and Guil’ ». Therefore it does require to at least remember the original story.

Set between the lines of Hamlet, Tom Stoppard’s play is a labyrinth uncovering the identity crisis of two courtiers of the Danish King. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, childhood friends of Hamlet, wonder what their life is all about – only to discover that they have no significance beyond that play. It is full of absurdities and nonsense and though an enjoyable read, the book mostly shows the potential the play can have on stage.

Ros’ and Guil’ Are Dead, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire at The Old Vic

In that sense, I really enjoyed to see those characters and intrigues come to life on The Old Vic stage. I thought the decors were pretty and the costumes good enough. It was strange and different – that was my first encounter with that play on stage, by the way, so I couldn’t possibly refer to anything that has been done before and how it innovates or not.

One may be surprised to find out, once on stage (it’s not really easy to remember who plays whom until you have them in front of you – the same way everyone keeps mistaking one for the other in the original Hamlet play and therefore in this one), that the most well known of the two principal actors – Daniel Radcliffe – isn’t taking on the ‘most important’ part. Indeed, he is Rosencrantz, who is merely the sidekick to the slightly cleverer Guildenstern – really well played by Joshua McGuire. Daniel Radcliffe’s role mostly consists in repeating what his stooge says or in being astonished to what everyone says or does and in making funny faces (absences and vacant stares, looks of surprise and lack of understanding…) – but he is right on point.

It’s just as if his character was here only to make the other ones more special – Joshua McGuire’s Guildenstern but also David Haig’s The Player, the head of a players’ company pretty much cornered to anything nasty they’ll have to accept doing in order to be able to put food on their table at the end of the day. His spookiness might remind you of Johnny Depp’s Jack Sparrow, only a lot sadder and, even more, disenchanted. If all the actors got their fair share of applause at the end of the show, David Haig was acclaimed for well deserving performance of walking on a wire of poetry and awfulness. All together, the play was alright – I was happy to see it on stage and to find out that I had been right about the fact that it was a lot funnier and appreciable on stage than on pages – but even though I would definitely recommend it, I didn’t get that enduring feeling I got from other plays during the week.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, by Tom Stoppard
The Old Vic Theatre
Until April 29th
Direction: David Leveaux
With Daniel Radcliffe, Joshua McGuire, David Haig…