Sunday, 19 June 2011

Theatre Review: Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is the second production in Trevor Nunn’s season as Artistic Director of the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Sadly, though, it comes nowhere near to matching the success of the first, Nunn’s truly gorgeous staging of Terence Rattigan’s Flare Path. Actually, Nunn's production, which opened at Chichester last month and takes up residence at the TRH until August, is serviceable enough. The problem is the play itself. Stoppard’s comedy, which famously imagines the extra-textual reality of two of Hamlet’s minor characters, may have looked like “an amazing piece of work” when it premiered in the late 1960s but now it seems mostly tiresome: a thin, effete, painfully derivative piece of gimmickry that filters Shakespeare through Beckett and Pirandello and is based around a central conceit that’s more interesting than anything that the playwright does with it. Stoppard would go on to achieve interesting marriages between what he calls "the play of ideas and farce or high comedy" later in his career, but here the jokes are corny and the metatheatrical elements laboured, while the philosophical musing - on fate and free will, mortality and identity - feels trite.

The fact that the production remains mildly diverting is down to its actors. The casting of two of the original History Boys as Ros and Guil pays dividends: Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker work together with the skill and ease of actors who know each other well; the pair’s rapport and respect is palpable throughout, and Barnett in particular has some inventive physical moments. And replacing an indisposed Tim Curry, Chris Andrew Mellon brings lewd gusto to the play’s best role, that of the Player King.

Nunn, who has been known to stretch a production beyond endurance, paces this one fairly well, although his inventiveness deserts him in a miserably staged pirate scene. But playing out on a grim dark-toned set that is too obvious an evocation of an existential limbo (the opening tableau is way too Godot) the production never really breaks through the aridity of Stoppard’s conception. The playwright offers quips, with little insight and no feeling. He doesn’t even play fair with his source material, truncating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s most significant scene in Hamlet, presumably because it doesn’t quite fit his conception of the pair as perpetually befuddled innocents. And so what we’re left with is skimpy and insubstantial: a competent but unspectacular production of a play that now seems a lot less ingenious than it thinks it is.

The production runs for 2 hours 40 minutes and is booking until 20th August.

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