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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are temporarily revived in the Bloomsbury Theatre

By uclektm, on 25 February 2014

UCLU Drama Society poster

UCLU Drama Society poster

It’s complicated, but bear with me. Here are some concentric circles of theatre: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead  is a 1966 play by Tom Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters from The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (but you can just call it Hamlet because everyone does) written somewhere between 1599 and 1602, maybe.

From 20 February to 22 February, the UCLU Drama Society performed a production of the play by Stoppard containing the elements of Hamlet as they appear in both original texts, but adapted and modernised to an extent, appearing without full Elizabethan costumes or set.

Amid these elements, the direction of Rob Beale found something that approached a fresh take on representing the void at the heart of the play. 

And it’s a hard play: to perform, to summarise, if only because of how the different layers of theatre outlined above actually operate. Rosencrantz (Vinnie Monachello) and Guildenstern (Tom Craig) are two minor characters from Hamlet, childhood friends of the eponymous character, entrusted with a letter that requests the execution of Hamlet.

Thanks to either trickery or paranoiac deceit on Hamlet’s behalf, the letter is altered to instead cause the deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. End curtain. The Stoppard play ‘happens’ between these parts, suggesting all kinds of questions and paradoxes about which is art, which is reality, the nature of either and so on.

The old play-within-but-also-adjacent-to-a-play device
The source text states that the play is set “in the wings” of Hamlet. But this expression is probably a bit misleading, at least in application to the play as performed by the UCLU Drama Society.

For the first two acts, the set was a semicircle of doors, of varying sizes and colours, through which characters entered and exited seemingly at random.

The double doors in the centre of the half-ring were adorned by a “stage door” sign which, from my seat and with my short-sightedness, had a glow like an “emergency exit” notice.

This at least paid lip service to the idea of being in the wings, but it seemed to me that everything else in the play was more ethereal with regard to existential metaphors – a bit less literal than my myopic emergency exit sign.

This set made the conflict between two spaces more explicit: were we watching action in the wings while Hamlet happened elsewhere, or was this just an isolated Limbo and nothing more? I think this production edged towards the latter, and I liked it.

So, as long as you can take “the wings” to mean some space of non-existence that is neither gestational nor coffin-like, then sure: this production was set in the wings.

This might seem like a digressive side issue, but when you’re dicing with themes like death and meaningless and the void of non-existence (similar to death, but more abstract), the whole thematic caboodle can rest on details such as this.

Business dress with Elizabethan flourishes
Moving past the wings and onto other things that drove the spare, modernised production: costuming.

Everyone was in contemporary dress: the only ornate thing onstage was often the Shakespearean dialogue in the scenes replicated directly from Hamlet.

For me, this seemed to shift the existential dilemma of the play. It was no longer a paradoxical question of art vs reality—Shakespeare and Stoppard’s texts battling it out—but instead a matter of fitting all the incongruities together before the one inevitable occurrence –death. The only marginal space here was life in general.

It is through this perspective that the UCLU Drama Society wrestled meaning and humour from a play whose shroud of simplicity can (annoyingly) make it seem impenetrable. The question of whether or not take things at face value appears often.

The problem with good dialogue
Take this, as The Player (the leader of a travelling band of actors, terrifyingly domineering as played by Avy Tennison) observes: “Life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it.”

Is that line an endlessly quotable wisecrack? An artefact of absurdist theatre (an aspect of which, broadly categorised, denies us realistic, fully-fleshed out characters)? All of the above?

The cast of this production ably found characterisation amid the dialogue, and allowed this to drive much of the humour of the play. As Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Monachello and Craig were situated on opposite, Odd Couple-y ends of the existential spectrum.

Monachello played Rosencrantz as a naïve, happy-go-lucky type, unquestioning of his fate, in contrast to Craig as Guildenstern, the grumpy inquisitor, as frustrated by his friend as by the lack of answers.

The supporting cast of characters from Hamlet also gave powerful deliveries of their Shakespearean dialogue, both signposting the progress of the story of Hamlet and providing some kind of existential relief for the audience – something is happening, even if it is more of a sustained theatrical illusion than what is happening in Rosencrantz.

The overarching impression that this production gave me was one of abstraction and disorientation, in the most appropriate absurdist way.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were dwarfed by the looming proscenium of the Bloomsbury Theatre and dominated by the authoritative, Shakespearean cadences, truly making them seem alone in whatever indeterminate void they occupied (wings or otherwise).

The disparate parts lent the production an atmosphere of hallucinatory terror – two men in business dress, lost amid a pastiche of theatrical history moving inexorably towards death.

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