Uncertainty is the normal state: STC’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Ros. What are you playing at?
Guil. Words, words. They’re all we have to go on.

I’ve often found myself dumbstruck at the sheer ridiculousness of the largeness of Tom Stoppard’s capacious intelligence and the wit with which his plays hum and shimmer. There’s a capriciousness and cheekiness that seems to dance over and under and through his words and language with a barely containable verve. It’s a virtuosity that has made him a favourite of critics and audiences. But underneath his distinctive stylistic flair and mannerisms, there is a serious engagement and interrogation of not so much issues but ideas. However disorienting and impenetrable his works may seem on the surface, “the plays are highly ordered and underpinned with logic and a point of view;” nothing is accidental, arbitrary or apologetic in Stoppard’s work.
In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, written between 1964 and 1966, and first produced in 1966, Stoppard takes Shakespeare’s Hamlet, and asks what the relatively minor and interchangeable characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are doing throughout the course of the play while they’re not on stage. It’s been variously described as being ‘Beckettian,’ ‘absurdist,’ or ‘absurdist existentialism,’ but the truth is neither – rather, it’s Stoppardian, and therein lies the key to this, his most celebrated and produced play. A lot of the existential anguish which seems to run through Stoppard’s work is not, as has been assumed, indicative of a lack of meaning in the world. Rather, it is a lack of adequate comprehension of the world and its persistent niggling questions, and this is not critical but merely human.

In performance, so much of Stoppard’s energy and verve is in the rhythm of the words as much as the words themselves – like the instance in Travesties when an entire scene is delivered in limerick form. His work is consistently filled with meta-textual and meta-theatrical allusions and refractions, full of the connections and implications that emerge from these links as opposed to the inherent order of the words themselves (though, that too, is often crucial in understanding Stoppard’s delicious wordplay). He has the gloriously enviable ability to make you feel totally intellectually inadequate at the same time as making you feel incredibly clever for getting what he’s on about. However, on the reverse side of the same coin, he is constantly winking at you, giving you a slight pause to make sure you get the joke, the reference; make sure you understand the game.
On a set that fills the normally cavernous Sydney Theatre stage, Simon Phillips’ production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is a veritable cornucopia of cod-Elizabethan finery, extravagance, bawdiness, and delight. Designed by Gabriela Tylesova, it is a sumptuous feast for the eyes, full of leather and red-and-gold pantaloons and cloaks, dinner-plate ruffs and doublets and hose – a bizarre kind of riff on Medieval, Elizabethan and Restoration dress which strangely enough works out (how, exactly, is a mystery). The set – a raked triangle disappearing into a forced perspective point upstage - is lined with several archways, through which the various ‘background’ characters come and go from the meta-story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet that is occurring around the action of the two hapless wanderers.
It’s a madcap romp, in many ways, completely spellbinding and enchanting, and eversoslightly infuriating in its intellect which it wears rather honestly on its sleeve. I heard Stoppard’s dialogue described once as like a Möbius strip made from a DNA double-helix, and this is no exception. As Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin weave and wend their merry way through Stoppard’s many tongue-twisting passages, it’s like watching Olympic athletes or gymnasts at work, they way they make it look so effortless and so disarmingly hypnotic. Dressed in leather, Schmitz and Minchin are a pair of stranded souls, trapped in a nowhere place, a kind of theatrical green-room for Elsinore castle. As Rosencrantz, Minchin plays up the naïveté inherent in the character, and sometimes you wonder if he’s acting at all, such is the honesty and believability of his performance, the credibility of poor Rosencrantz’s confusion and lack of understanding. As the taller of the two, Schmitz’s Guildenstern is the assumed leader of the two, and is slightly obnoxious, but his bemusement and haplessness is similarly enchanting. In true Schmitz fashion, he completely owns the character and you can see the fun he’s having with the role and the language in every single second of his performance.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has been described as a three-hander, despite its title, such is the status of the Player’s role in the play’s unfolding. Played by Ewen Leslie as a kind of braggart troubadour cum pirate, the Player is a swaggering Blackbeard of a fellow, not without an inherent lecherous menace which beautifully offsets Minchin’s innocence and Schmitz’s forthrightness. As the leader of the band of Tragedians, Leslie is every bit the consummate showman he professes his troupe to be; you could very well believe him commanding his ragtag accomplices to a performance of anything you may so desire –
Deaths and disclosures, universal and particular, denouments both unexpected and inexorable, transvestite melodrama on all levels including the suggestive. We transport you into a world of intrigue and illusion I can do you blood and love without the rhetoric, and I can do you blood and rhetoric without the love, and I can do you all three concurrent or consecutive, but I can't do you love and rhetoric without the blood. Blood is compulsory-- they're all blood, you see.     (The Player)
The rest of the Tragedians are an assorted bag of miscreants, minstrels, jesters, mummers and actors, dressed in variations on medieval pantaloons and jerkins, slippers, tights, hats, and doublets. Composer Alan John furnished them with a pipe, tabor and lute, enabling them – much like he did for Company B Belvoir’s immortal Diary of a Madman – to interact with the action, to ‘score’ the action on-stage and to bring a slice of the Elizabethan streets to the Sydney Theatre stage in a welcome interjection of humour, warmth and verve. Steve Francis’ subtle sound design, eversoslightly amplified, meant that even the quietest moments upstage could be heard throughout the entire theatre, and this meant that none of Stoppard’s (or Shakespeare’s) delicious words were lost. Illuminated by Nick Schlieper in warm yellows and burnt ambers, cool blues and thin spotlights, the lighting helped to create the illusion of the space as a liminal in-between netherworld, neither here nor there, a bit like Lear’s blasted heath.
Described by Simon Phillips as a “joyous, smart, outrageously intricate and bravely despairing play,” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is Stoppard’s first great hit, and is has not aged in its nearly fifty year lifespan. Like Rosencrantz, we know something great and wondrous is taking shape, but we can’ quite touch it or articulate it. During the play, as you try to keep up with Stoppard’s rapid-fire tangents and non-sequiturs, it’s like trying to keep up with a tennis game whose ball you cannot quite catch sight of (indeed, the verbal tennis match in the play seems to riff on several lines in Shakespeare’s own Henry V); but rather than leave the theatre exhausted, you walk out exhilarated and utterly dazzled by his wordiness, verbosity and sheer intellectual dexterity, the play’s panache. Once you immerse yourself in the world of the play that Stoppard has created, anything can – and generally does – happen. You have to let your thoughts and preconceptions go and just exist solely in the moment of the play. Pretty soon you’ll be soaring, giddy-drunk on words words words.
They are, after all, all you have to go on, most of the time.

Theatre playlist: 24. Kemp’s Jegg, Tarleton’s Jig

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