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How Stoppard’s debut, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, dazzled Theatreland

Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire rehearsing for the latest production. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Playwrights dwell on posterity. Will their work live on after they are dead? Will anyone have heard of them in 100 years’ time?

When a debut play that was written 50 years ago gets a major London revival, you can be pretty certain its author, Tom Stoppard, who went on to write other, arguably better, plays than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, will still be a dramatic force to reckon with a century from now.

Stoppard, 80 this year, was an unknown ex-journalist when he wrote his tongue-in-cheek meditation on mortality, performance and the futility of life in 1965, though he had already written scripts for TV and radio. His literary agent Kenneth Ewing sent the playscript to a number of managements, all of which rejected it. Eventually Ewing released it to an amateur company, the Oxford Theatre Group, which took it to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

Its production would probably have gone unnoticed but for a rave review by Ronald Bryden in the Observer, who called it “the most brilliant debut by a young playwright since John Arden’s” and declared the play “an erudite comedy, leaping from depth to dizziness”.

John Stride and Edward Petherbridge in the National Theatre’s 1967 production. Photo: Anthony Crickmay

Kenneth Tynan, then literary manager of the National Theatre (and Bryden’s predecessor), was always on the look-out for fresh talent and requested a script. “Olivier liked it as much as I did, and within a week we had bought it,” recalled Tynan in his 1977 profile of Stoppard in the New Yorker.

When it opened at the Old Vic in April 1967, with Edward Petherbridge and John Stride as Hamlet’s loquacious courtiers, Graham Crowden as the Player King and John McEnery as the Prince, the 29-year-old Stoppard suddenly found himself not only rich and famous overnight, but a major player on the London theatrical scene.

Harold Hobson, the influential critic of the Sunday Times, called it “the most important event in the British professional theatre of the last nine years”.

With his rock-star looks, easy charm and ready wit, the Czech-born writer was photographed and written about wherever he went. “What’s it about?” someone asked Stoppard of the play prior to its opening. “It’s about to make me very rich,” he famously replied. Not since John Osborne a decade earlier had a young playwright been quite so feted.

The play transferred to Broadway, where it ran for a year and won four Tony awards. In 1990, Stoppard adapted and directed a film version with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman in the title roles, Richard Dreyfuss as the Player King, and Iain Glen as Hamlet. It won the Golden Lion at that year’s Venice Film Festival.

Stoppard was the first to admit that the original idea for the play was Ewing’s, not his. But once he started to think about putting the normally peripheral Rosencrantz and Guildenstern centre stage, consigning Hamlet and all the other key characters to the sidelines, the play began to take shape.

Jamie Parker and Samuel Barnett at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in 2011. Photo: Tristram Kenton

In a recent Guardian interview, Stoppard admitted that as a young writer he probably “attached more importance to the joys of receiving the right words in the right order” and that his writing was “a little dandy-esque”, as indeed was the man himself.

Not surprisingly, his main literary inspiration for Rosencrantz was not Shakespeare but Samuel Beckett, whose 1953 play Waiting for Godot concerns two central characters, Vladimir and Estragon, stuck in a situation beyond their control, playing word games, ruminating on the meaning of life, constantly pondering their predicament and ultimately clinging to each other for comfort.

Stoppard said: “When Waiting for Godot was first done, it liberated something for anybody writing plays. It redefined the norms of theatrical validity. It was as simple as that.”

In his review of Trevor Nunn’s 2011 revival at Chichester, Michael Billington observed that “the play often seems like a speculation on what would happen if Vladimir and Estragon turned up in Elsinore”.

The critics were divided over Nunn’s production, which later transferred to the West End. Some found the play’s wordplay as fresh and witty as ever, while others felt it had become tiresome with age. “You sometimes feel as if you have been trapped in a bar by an insufferably garrulous smart-ass who won’t stop showing off how clever he is,” wrote Charles Spencer in the Telegraph.

Six years after Chichester’s revival and 50 years since its debut, how will the Old Vic reinvent Stoppard’s famous comedy? Will the production play up the existential angst or simply go for laughs? Most importantly, will it reassert its status as a modern classic? Watch this space.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs at the Old Vic, London from February 25 to April 29. It will be streamed to cinemas throughout the UK on April 20 via NT Live

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