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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My Heart Belongs to Yes I Said Yes I Will Yes

Tom Stoppard, Travesties (Director: Patrick Marber, Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue)

As I’m sure I’ve written before, I fell out of love with theatre thanks to Nottingham Playhouse’s patronising use of social realist dramas. My few returns to theatre, aside from Hobson’s Choice and Glen Garry Glen Ross, seem to have been Shakespeare. But there have been the odd Stoppard — the original production of Arcadia (I also saw Hapgood) and the Chichester revival of The Real Inspector Hound. I’d read Travesties thirty years ago, but I’d never seen it until now.

It’s a play that sort of demonstrates what we “know” about Stoppard. He cares more about ideas than people. He’s not a radical playwright. He’s too clever for his own good.

Certainly I overheard conversations in the interval and after the curtain in which audience members declared they didn’t understand it. “Great acting, great production, but I don’t think I understand it.”

Stoppard’s jumping off point is the fact that Lenin, Joyce and Tzara were all in Zurich in 1917. He presents these through the memories of the British Consul… the assistant British Consul… an assistant British Consul… Henry Carr, from about fifty years later. Carr is an unreliable narrator, which gets around the dates not quite working, the minor anachronisms. Joyce, in the middle of writing Ulysses, invites Carr to play Algie in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Ernest, which led to lawsuits being exchanged between the two of them. Lenin, meanwhile, is waiting for revolution in Russia and trying to work out how to get across Germany to Petrograd. And Tzara, having just “invented” Dadaism, has fallen in love with Carr’s sister.

Each of the three great men are given chances to make speeches about their ideas and argue with Carr — the role of art, the role of the artist, the place of the the revolutionary, whether man can live on bread alone when he cannot live on art. I guess the confusion comes in when you try to work out where Stoppard stands, as a playwright who seems to be more about ideas than social change. Given some of his plays and television work about Czechoslovakia and the Soviet bloc, and an interview with him some thirty years ago, you’d assume his sympathies are not with Lenin. But then Stoppard asserted that he had to play fair and give Lenin some decent lines. And his major opponent is Carr, who pretty well emerges as a jerk. For that matter, I recall seeing some left wing playwrights who are similarly dialogic.

There is the glorious level of intertextuality — The Importance of Being Ernest, of course, although I thought there were more quotations, a few sequences that are indebted to the catechism chapter of Ulysses (which I probably didn’t catch in the 1980s) — as well as playing with limericks and poems, translations, and so forth. The start of the second half has a very clever (and rude) joke with Joyce dictating the ending of Ulysses. There are cut ups of one of Shakespeare’s sonnets and sequences which break into song and dance. Sometimes, I fear, I cringed a little, but there’s a Brechtian playfulness that recurs.

There are a couple of other texts that haunt it — there’s the Orson Welles cuckoo clock speech from The Third Man which you’d think would be alluded to in a conversation about war, peace and Switzerland and the dress and make-up of sister Gwendolyn and librarian Cecily seem to anticipate the play with twins in Hapgood.

It might be the strength of the acting, but you do care for the characters. Tom Hollander plays Carr as old man and young, and his comic timing and height feel spot on. His opening speech, more or less, is a three page soliloquy, which is hitting the ground running after some added silent business. The actor playing the butler, Bennett, almost steals his scenes, with some radical comments I think have been added to the script since 1974. Cecily (Clare Foster) and Gwendolyn (Amy Morgan) have a thankless first half, but come into focus in the second. The play isn’t just about the men — although only the men are famous. Cecily teeters on the edge of feminist or political killjoy — Carr declares her a pedant — but this allows her to name the play. The original exchange between the two women was in verse, but here it is played in song (with Joyce on mandolin).

Of course, it is hard to understand on some levels — the need of art to be political or not to be art is not resolved, but then you wouldn’t expect it to be. Because it isn’t resolvable.

Let’s end with one odd twist: Freddie Fox, of the Fox dynasty, is Tzara — initially Romanian, but quickly English as he shades into an The Importance of Being Ernest character. In 1974 he was played by John Hurt. I’m not sure I can quite imagine that.