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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Theatre Royal Haymarket

Tom Stoppard
Directed by Trevor Nunn
Courtesy of the Theatre Royal Haymarket
In truth, we hadn’t planned to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead so early in its London run: we were actually planning on trying to catch the last performance of Blythe Spirit at the Apollo. However, due to circumstances beyond our control, we weren’t able to do so. Thankfully, quick thinking allowed us to snap up some front row seats to Tom Stoppard’s existentialist masterpiece, which turned out to provide an excellent evening full of comedy, philosophizing, wordplay, and crucially, excellent performances.
The play itself is, on its simplest level, a re-telling of Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of two minor characters, the eponymous Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. But Stoppard’s script is so much more than that. More than anything else, it uses the framework of Hamlet to provide a Waiting for Godot style meta-play, a reflection on the nature of art, determinism, and ultimately, death. Perhaps the greatest part of this play however, is the clever use of language: Stoppard truly is a wizard of words, and his script effortlessly bounces through untold numbers of witty remarks, hysterical puns and excellent wordplay. Additionally, much of the comedy intrinsic in the script would easily have been lost, were it not for the superb direction of Sir Trevor Nunn: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the next instalment in the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s ‘Trevor Nunn Season’, the previous production being Flare Path and the next production being The Tempest. It is remarkable, but hardly surprising, that the same director could have been behind both a harrowing tribute to World War II RAF fighter pilots, and this, a meta-theatrical piece of absurdism.
As mentioned above, this production also contains some outstanding performances, especially in the title roles. These are filled by Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker, in what was a very clever casting choice: both of these actors played together in the wildly successful National Theatre production of The History Boys by Alan Bennett, and in the subsequent tours and spin-offs. As a consequence, their onstage chemistry is electric and each already wonderful performance is complemented perfectly by the other. Jamie Parker in particular delivers a mesmerizingly good individual performance as the slightly more clued-up Guildenstern, although Barnett’s performance is also exceptional. Another great performance came from Chris Andrew Mellon as The Player. This role was originally going to be played by Tim Curry, with Mellon as his understudy, but when Curry pulled out for personal reasons the decision was taken not to recast since Mellon filled the role so well.
Furthermore, the show has excellent production values. Simon Higlett’s perspectivised set is simple yet effective, and provides a perfect backdrop for the action. The lighting, too, is smartly done by Tim Mitchell, with clever use of spotlights to expose only the faces of the title characters at the very beginning of the play, and just before and after the interval. Additionally, the use of UV cannons to give the effect of a starry night both creates a location successfully and reminds us of the absurdist nature of the play. Costumes are also a particular treat, with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern having modernised, punkish costumes, whereas the characters in the play around them have costumes designed to match the expectations of an audience about to watch a production of Hamlet
Overall, this production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead provides very little to criticise. It is not ground-breaking in the way it must have been when it first opened at The Old Vic in the sixties, but that is the only aspect that we can find fault with. It is a fitting tribute to the directorial prowess of Sir Trevor Nunn and the outstanding performances of Barnett and Parker. The bottom line is this: book your tickets, you will not regret it!
Please feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments section below!

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 20th August 2011.
Box Office: 0845 481 1870 or book online at http://www.trh.co.uk/

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