Last night, I went to see a live screening of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by the National Theatre from the Old Vic in London.
It’s one of those plays that’s often referenced – particularly by Radio 4 types – but rarely seen performed, and it’s the one that placed Tom Stoppard squarely on the map when it was first performed at the Edinburgh Fringe in 1966. And that’s the bulk of what I knew about this icon until yesterday.
This performance was fronted by Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire as the eponymous men, while David Haig took the role of The Player. I found each of these to be perfectly cast: the former two respectively forming a straight-man-and-comic act, and the latter inhabiting the part without being tempted to overact.
Throughout the play, there are key scenes interpolated from Hamlet. While it isn’t necessary to have seen that play to enjoy this one, anyone who does would be at an advantage, as the speech in these interpolated scenes retains Shakespeare’s original words. Yet when we hear Rosencrantz and Guildenstern speak with each other, the dialogue is in 20th-century English, switching to a more Shakespearean cadence when they converse with outsiders. This technique shouldn’t work, but we’re so swept up in the action that the code switching barely matters.
I can’t pretend to have caught every word, owing to the dense wordplay with philosophical overtones, often delivered at a breakneck pace. I feel that a second viewing might fill the holes in my recollection.
There also appeared to be a different dynamic between Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Hamlet. Whereas in the original play, Hamlet seems excited to meet his old friends despite his grief, this doesn’t come across in Stoppard’s version. What we see here is Hamlet largely uninterested in anyone else because of his grief.
Any playwright who borrows wholesale from Shakespeare has to understand what they’re doing, and it’s clear that Stoppard did. He doesn’t parody Hamlet, he expands upon it, creating what we might today call fanfiction. And it’s expanded past the point of a pen portrait or a short story to become a feature-length production that enhances our understanding of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as characters, as men and as friends.
I’ve now been to see several National Theatre broadcasts at the cinema. The experience has always been a positive one, but I can detect something of a reluctance. It’s as if a live transmission is something the National Theatre feels obliged to do to gain an audience, not a move they actively want to take.
There is also the uncanny disconnection between the cinema audience and the actors. Conventionally, a theatre audience will applaud at the end to show their appreciation. A cinema audience, on the other hand, will hardly ever applaud even when the showing isn’t pre-recorded – although I experienced one exception after I, Daniel Blake.
This should not be read as a criticism of the National Theatre, but as encouragement to keep up these broadcasts. I live many hundreds of miles from London; other than travelling there one weekend, this is the closest experience I’ll have to being at a West End production. It’s a jolly good show all round.