Tom Stoppard’s reputation for virtuosic displays of linguistic and intellectual gymnastics has held its ground for the past fifty-odd years, and one of his earliest plays – Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – is perhaps the first time we see his talent on display. Described variously as ‘Beckettian,’ ‘absurdist,’ or ‘absurdist existentialism,’ the play takes place in the wings of Hamlet, and asks what Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (those relatively minor and interchangeable characters) are doing throughout the course of the play while they’re not on stage. By turns funny, strange, witty, and head-scratchingly dense, the play has become one of Stoppard’s enduring crowd-favourites, and is presented here by independent company Furies in a sparse-but-not-empty production.
Staged in the tiny Blood Moon Theatre in The World Bar, director Chris McKay makes light work of Stoppard’s dense text, and gives us a world that is stripped back to the bare essentials needed to tell this story; anything else would detract from the circuitous holding pattern Shakespeare’s two auxiliary characters find themselves in. All McKay has at his disposal are the actors, Stoppard’s words (they are, after all, all they have to go on), a storage trunk, and Zjarie Paige-Butterworth’s rich Elizabethan-inspired costumes, and he uses these to great effect, involving the audience as much as possible – if not directly, then allowing us into an understanding that we are in fact supporting players in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s story, just as they are in Hamlet’s. One of McKay’s clever decisions in this production, borne partly out of a necessity, is to invert the genders of the characters, commenting (subtly, directly, or somewhere in between) on the lack of gender parity in theatre, and/or in a historical context. There are some lovely moments as a result of this (Leofric Kingsford Smith’s Gertrude, Logan McArthur’s Ophelia), as well as an incredibly strong dynamic between Krystiann Dingas’ Rosencrantz, Emilia Stubbs-Grigoriou’s Guildenstern, and Amanda Maple-Brown’s Player, thus reconfirming my belief that this play is not a two-hander as its title would have you believe, but rather a three-hander. McKay’s other deft stroke is to incorporate moments of existential quandary – the opening coin-tossing sequence (“it’ll take some beating, I imagine”), for instance – with flurries of furious energy, music, and obligatory displays of gratuitous (and often violent) deaths. While some of the quieter, stiller moments seem to extend longer than they perhaps actually do, the balance between stillness and movement makes up for this, and more often than not the Player and her entourage are never too far away. The costumes designed and made by Zjarie Paige-Butterworth are sumptuous creations in velvet, brocade, beads, trim, and detail. Like Melanie Liertz’s costumes for Sport for Jove’s Love’s Labour’s Lost last December, there is a something rather refreshing about seeing this level of detail and attention to building a cohesive world on stage, especially with such a tight budget.
The performances here are strong, and help to make sense and often light work of some of Stoppard’s thornier passages. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Krystiann Dingas and Emilia Stubbs-Grigoriou are bemused, confused, defiant, resolved, hapless, determined, and occasionally resigned to their obscure role and fate within the larger scheme of things, but there is always the good-humoured camaraderie of old friends between them that keeps their more existential moments from descending into a truly Godot-esque homage. Amanda Maple-Brown’s Player is exuberant and forthright, her commanding presence stealing the show from Ros. and Guil., and only returning it in the final moments; underneath this whirlwind exterior though, is a desperation to please, a vital need to perform, as though her very life depends upon being able to present “tragedy, death and disclosures, universal and particular, dénouements both unexpected and inexorable, transvestite melodrama on all levels including the suggestive,” with a side helping of “blood, love, and rhetoric.” Special mention also to Lauren Crew’s Tragedian, who subtly underplays a role which could very easily become caricature, and very nearly steals the scene from the Player.
Your brain might hurt as you try to keep up with Stoppard’s rapid-fire tangents and non-sequiturs (a bit like trying to keep up with a tennis game whose ball you cannot quite catch sight of, nor whose rules you don’t always understand), but in the end all you can do is trust in the words and hope they are enough to provide you with all the questions, clues, and occasionally answers that you need. They are, after all, all you have to go on. Most of the time.