Waiting for Hamlet

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (directed by David Leveaux, Old Vic, cinema relay)

This is a haunted play and I suspect only partly deliberately. I saw the Mark Arden-Stephen Frost-Lionel Blair version at Nottingham Playhouse thirty years ago, which was I now realise a twentieth anniversary of its profession debut at the Old Vic in 1967 after a 1966 Edinburgh Fringe run. It is a play that weaves in and out of Hamlet in an ingenious way — the backstage to the main plot as it were. And every time I see Hamlet, I feel that it is a play full of quotations… even leaving aside any debt to Thomas Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy and an ur-Hamlet.

But it is also Samuel Beckett — the two tramps who are passing time, Waiting for Godot, visited by Lucky and Pozzo, philosophising. And playing games. In Beckett’s play there is a reaching for a deeper meaning, at least on the part of the audience, but without the sense of quite what that is. Not only that, but once we see the barrels on board ship, I am transported back to Happy Days (1961), with characters in barrels.

It might be a young man’s play, with effortless riffing on probability (a coin landing heads ninety times), chaos theory (a hint at the butterfly effect) and other scientific ideas, but there’s also thinking about death, what real death is, whether it can be represented rather than known, the nature of memory. Seeing it again, possibly fifteen years after I saw Stoppard’s intriguing film version with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman, twenty years or more after having last read it, I am struck by the cleverness of the structure, the thematic unities between the first and second half (although I think this production moves the interval — certainly Stoppard has done rewrites). The coin toss game leads to the which-hand-is-it-in giving Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern?) the chance to give back some of the money he won from Guildenstern (or was it Rosencrantz?) at the start of the play. And the looking in barrels for people is somewhere between find the lady and Schrödinger’s cat.

So here we have Daniel Radcliffe as Rosencrantz — the box office gold, although it may be depressing that Stoppard needs a star as draw. Radcliffe wants to show his acting chops — even as he disguises them under an actorly beard. He’s done Equus, another classic, another play where it is hard to place the author’s own point of view. It would be easy to be uncharitable, and here I certainly had the sense he was the weak link. Arden and Frost were a double act, I could almost imagine Steve Punt and Hugh Dennis playing the roles (there’s even a physical resemblance) and I think there’s an instinctive camaraderie that is needed to get the timing pitch perfect. Perhaps it was the distraction of the cameras, but in the first act at least he seemed not quite on cue. It doesn’t help that he is in the dimmer role — his vacant, smiling, rabbit in the headlights seemed a little one note. In the second act he hit his stride — there is more action to set against, and there was a louder audience reaction, even an awww.

His costar, Josh McGuire, is undoubtedly stronger, but table tennis needs two great players. I’ve looked him up, and I don’t remember him from the things he’s in that I have seen. He’s more obvious comic, also a little camp, and at times seems to be acting as the director (of the play of “life”?) in a way I don’t recall from earlier viewings.

In the short film tour of the Old Vic that preceded the play, he is the lead compared to Radcliffe, whom both Chris and I noted was never looking at the camera. Is this the celeb who has learned not to make eye contact? Real shyness as himself? Would the play work if the casting were to be reversed? Radcliffe, the star, as Rosencrantz is the supporting part to a minor role.

I suspect there was a severe rake to the stage, because the other actors towered over them at times. Chris was reminded of The Lord of the Rings and there was a visual affinity to Frodo and Sam — with Radcliffe as Sam. That leaves the idea of Ian McKellen as the Player, here played by David Haig.

Haig is best known as sitcom actor and the Richard Curtis “comedies”, but I have seen him in Chichester’s play version of Yes, Prime Minister as Jim Hacker against Henry Goodman’s Sir Humphrey, foregrounding his insecurities and pettiness against the oily superiority. There is little insecurity here, though, even as the Player craves the audience. He is the cockney actor manager, tough, full of the gift of the gab, and oddly sexually ambivalent — here I think Stoppard has added a few more sexual touches to a play first professionally performed in the year that homosexuality was partially decriminalised. Alfred (Matthew Durkan) as the boy act forced to cross dress rather steals his scenes.

The cast of the main play of Hamlet feel a little slight, and I was slightly confused by the choice of a black actor (Wil Johnson) as Claudius, uncle and now father to a very pale Hamlet (Luke Mullins). Colour blind casting? I guess he and Hamlet sr could be half brothers or… I don’t know, it seemed an odd distraction. Did Theo Ogundipe double as Horatio (son of the white Polonius) and Fortinbrass? Or am I foolish to look for realism in this play?

But, yes, the play took wing towards the end and the relationship between the leads finally fell into place. The creative director of the Old Vic tells he always chooses plays which are politically meaningful, and it is in that second act that we get the lines about not placing faith in England:

Rosencrantz: I don’t believe in it anyway.
Guildenstern: What?
Rosencrantz: England.
Guildenstern: Just a conspiracy of cartographers, then?

The words of the almost thirty-year-old Stoppard, né Tomáš Straussler, clearly in love with the language and clearly not afraid to take on the masters of the English theatre.

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