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Theatre review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead 
12th-Jul-2011 11:38 pm
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Second in the Trevor Nunn Season at TRH is a transfer for his Chichester production of the existential comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. I went with Jan, who'd seen the play before and liked it, and vanessaw, who hadn't seen this particular one before but is a big Stoppard fan - my own feelings on the playwright have tended to be more mixed. Fortunately the play that made his name proved to be more up my street. Nunn has reunited two of the History Boys to play two characters peripheral to the main action of Hamlet, who may or may not quite understand exactly what's going on - certainly in Stoppard's interpretation they're pretty much in the dark. Sam Barnett is the dimmer Rosencrantz (Stoppard expands on Hamlet's running gag about people not knowing which of his friends is which - here even Rosencrantz has a tendency to respond when anyone calls Guildenstern's name) and Jamie Parker as the slightly more aware, philosophical Guildenstern. Although for the most part the issues raised relate to predestination versus free will, it's Guildenstern who borders on going one stage further: As the unseen part of The Mousetrap plays out and reveals what will happen to the duo, there's a hint of Six Characters in Search of an Author as he almost becomes aware he's a fictional character.

As well as Hamlet the biggest influence here is Waiting for Godot, much of the play being taken up with just the two confused central characters trying to understand their place in the world. These scenes in themselves are very witty and are made even funnier by how good the chemistry between the two leads is. They're broken up with a different comic dynamic every time they interact with The Player and his troupe - Chris Andrew Mellon is also very good although his performance is very similar in style to Tim Curry, who had been down to play the part but had to withdraw due to illness (prior to dropping out, Curry's name had been more prominent on the publicity meaning that, irony of ironies, perennial bit-part players Rosencrantz and Guildenstern even got upstaged in their own play.) Theoretically this play could be watched without prior knowledge of Hamlet but it certainly helps, and seeing the familiar great speeches reduced to so much background noise and snippets of information that baffle the protagonists is a joy in itself. Simon Higlett's very simple set (helped by Tim Mitchell's lighting) is brilliantly atmospheric and although, being Stoppard, it's got more ideas than heart, the play's not smugly intellectual. It is too long though - in the second act some of Guildenstern's ideas seem rather repetitive and could perhaps have been trimmed, bringing forward the ending, which is interestingly open to interpretation.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard is booking until the 20th of August at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.
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