Fifty years after its debut Tom Stoppard’s ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD, directed by David Leveaux’s, returned to the Old Vic in this marvellous production direcuj. We here in Australia are privileged to see it as part of this year’s  NT Live Series.

Stoppard’s play is an existential philosophical comedy, examining the very meaning of existence, memory and our fear of death.

Against the backdrop of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, two unfortunate minor characters, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Hamlet’s friends, are now thrust centre stage. As the young double act stumble their way in and out of Shakespeare’s iconic drama, they become increasingly bewildered and out of their depth as their version of the Hamlet story unfolds.

Much attention needs to be paid to Stoppard’s wordy at times convoluted text. In some ways the play has a Becket like Waiting For Godot like feel.  

The set is fluid and changing and includes drapes with a fabulous dreamy Magritte- like cloud print for the opening scenes and sails and kegs of wine for the ship scenes.

A curtain is often at least partly dragged across the stage, there are some chairs, and it is as if we are in some ways in an anteroom at Elsinore, waiting … While onboard the ship in Act 2 Hamlet mostly hides behind a large red beach umbrella.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are wonderfully presented as a witty,  delightful, cross-talking double act.

Daniel Radcliffe (of Harry Potter fame) is slim, bearded, amiable, anxious to please, and suffers from sudden introspective panic attacks.

Joshua McGuire, best known for The Hour, is Guildenstern, the brainier of the two, is clean shaven, and mostly a sunny character with a huge, toothy grin.

David Haig (Four Weddings and a Funeral, The Witness for the Prosecution) as the Player is extraordinary and has much fun hogging the limelight. He suggests both a knowing, rather squalid down on his luck impresario and a typical Victorian era Actor/Manager with the attitude of an Old Tragedian. He is rough and pragmatic, and there is a hint that he is Interested in Alfred (Matthew Durkan),

Does the Player King know more about what is happening than anyone and is he in fact controlling events? His troupe of players (including some musicians) are rather bedraggled Pierrots lugging their tatty glamour around with them.  

The actual scenes from Hamlet are wonderfully played. Hamlet is gloriously played by Luke Mullins.Tall, pale, refined and handsome he looks a lot like Sir John Geilgud in the role (balletomanes – think of Erik Bruhn). We gather he is only ‘acting‘ his ‘madness’ .

As for the others at Elsinore : Claudius is terrifically played by Wil Johnson with great authority and wears an insect like crown, whilst Gertrude is strongly played by Marianne Oldham mostly garbed in a red costume, like Elizabeth 1, with a huge ruff.

Polonius is played by a bearded William Chubb as tall, pompous,bombastic,  wordy and rather sinister.

Beautiful, dutiful Ophelia is elegantly played by Helena Wilson, garbed in a blue dress, and looks like a fairytale princess.

The production is fleet of foot, thanks to great work by movement director Lizzi Gee.

Certain moments blend poignant beauty and fragile goofiness. It bubbles with life yet talks of the finality of death. Fifty years on it Stoppard’s play still dazzles and delights. The play’s the thing…

Running time – allow roughly three hours including one interval

The NT Live screening of Tom Stoppard’s  ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD is screening at selected arthouse cinemas from 24th June.