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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic – review round-up

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Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the ultimate fringe success story: a student production of an unknown play, abused by all but one critic, somehow finding its way from an empty Edinburgh hall to a National Theatre revival within a year, and pushing its author from minor playwright to household name in the process.

And now, it’s reappearing on the very stage it made its name at half a century ago as Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire star in David Leveaux’s 50th-anniversary revival at the Old Vic.

Radcliffe has evolved into an engaging stage actor since his first performance as Equus at just 17. He’s pursued stage roles alongside his film work, appearing in the West End in The Cripple of Inishmaan, and in New York in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and James Graham’s Privacy. McGuire has also balanced stage and screen, appearing in the premiere of Posh, as Hamlet in the Globe’s 2011 touring production, and as Mozart in Chichester Festival Theatre’s 2014 Amadeus.

But are this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern up to the challenge of Stoppard’s existential labyrinth? Can Leveaux’s revival match the critical acclaim of Patrick Marber’s production of Travesties, currently lighting up the West End? Does Stoppard’s play turn fifty with grace and decorum, or is it suffering a mid-life crisis?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead – A fine half-century

In 1966, Stoppard’s play, which imagines the backstage, angst-ridden lives of two bit-part players in Hamlet, was hailed by its one champion – Ronald Brydon of The Observer – as “an existentialist fable unabashedly indebted to Waiting for Godot but as witty and vaulting as Beckett’s original is despairing.”

Since then, it’s firmly established itself as a classic, pored over by students. Does it still retain its lustre at 50, though? As Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★) puts it, “are we genuflecting out of duty, or genuine pleasure?”

Genuine pleasure is his answer. “It’s a hand on heart relief”, he writes, “to report that David Leveaux’s revival argues the case for it as compellingly and persuasively as I think its author could wish.”

Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) agrees, adding that “if the play still works, it is because Stoppard strikes an astonishing balance between cross-talk comedy and poignant awareness of mortality.”

Others are less sure. Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★) reckons that “there’s little that can be done with this technically exacting play that wasn’t mapped out half a century ago”, while Quentin Letts (Daily Mail, ★★★) is slightly put off by its “undergraduate look-at-me intellectualism.”

At the final count, however, the ayes outweigh the nos. Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★★★) thinks that Stoppard’s play “still has witty vitality”, Luke Jones (TheatreCat, ★★★★★) opines that this “hoo-ray revival knows that Tom Stoppard offers more than just bouncy a turn of phrase and logical fireworks”, and Sarah Crompton (What’sOnStage, ★★★★) simply remarks how delightful it is “to see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern returning to the theatre where its first National Theatre production made such an impact 50 years ago.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead –Harry Potter and the Existentialist

Radcliffe has made no secret of his desire to distance himself from Hogwarts and his determination to succeed in more adult roles. According to many, appearing as Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern? No-one seems quite sure) is another step in the right direction.

“Lest we forget”, explains Lukowski, “one of D-Rad’s most recent film parts was as a farting corpse in Swiss Army Man; this is obviously pretty different, but both are suggestive of a man happy to bury his ego in the name of a few chuckles.”

So how do ‘D-Rad’ and, erm, ‘J-McGee’ fare here?

According to Mark Shenton (The Stage, ★★★★), they are “a perfectly blended comedy double act”, McGuire with “the brighter, sparkier personality” and Radcliffe offering “a more wounding sense of introspection and doubt.”

Ann Treneman (Times, ★★★★) concurs. “Radcliffe and McGuire bounce off each other like Spacehoppers on a day out”, she writes. “McGuire is hyper, Radcliffe beset with permanent anxiety.”

Radcliffe, in particular, earns heaps of praise. For Crompton, his is “a lovely, confident performance, a million miles from Harry Potter”, while for Jones, “Radcliffe’s morose Guildenstern, whipped up into a frantic and repressed fury, is wonderful.”

“He really is very good”, confirms Lukowski, “a beautifully pitched arsenal of vacant stares, uncomprehending looks and beatific smiles, very occasionally boiling over to high panic.”

Paul Taylor (Independent, ★★★★) isn’t alone in disagreeing, though. For him, Radcliffe isn’t quite “bang on the beat” and for Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★★★), he occasionally “tips over from high-speed patter into gabbling.”

They both prefer McGuire, Taylor writing that the diminutive actor “could have been born to give frenetic high definition to Guildenstern.” Shouldn’t that be Rosencrantz? Anyone?

Oh, and David Haig is also here and also excellent, taking on the role of fellow Hamlet-castaway the Player King and almost stealing the show in a performance that for Billington “suggests both a seedy impresario and a Vincent Crummles-style veteran actor”, and that puts Lukowski in mind of “Jack Sparrow’s sinister brother.”

“This ever-invaluable actor’s actor is on roaring form”, gushes Matt Wolf (The Arts’ Desk, ★★★★), “and provides a springy contrast to the largely death-obsessed musings of the Janus-faced pair of the title.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead –The play’s the thing

The play is undimmed then, and the cast superb, but does Leveaux’s production – designed by Anna Fleischle – hit home too?

For Shenton, Leveaux’s direction “mines the play expertly for all its subplots and subtexts”, for Billington, it is “full of witty touches”, and for Philip Fisher, Leveaux “has pulled out all the stops.”

“Leveaux spices the action – such as it is – with multiple inventive touches”, explains Wolf, “from the spit of Luke Mullins’s fine-boned Hamlet coming back to hit him in the face to the impression that Haig’s troupe of itinerant thesps can sometimes get a little bit carried away.”

“The pacing is fleet, the timing slick, and memorable moments are in sufficiently plentiful supply”, asserts Cavendish, summing up the prevailing opinion succinctly.

There are those that think otherwise, though. Shuttleworth is generally positive, opining that Leveaux’s production “takes delight in both the wordplay and the metatheatrical business”, but complains that it sprints along “perhaps too swiftly at times”, and Treneman is with him. For her, Leveaux “mostly paces it well, though there are moments where it’s not only R and G who seem a bit lost.”

And Fleischle’s design, a tapestry of silk curtains and clouds that emphasises the yawning depth of the Old Vic stage?  According to Letts, it’s a set that assists “the parallelism with Shakespeare’s Elsinore scenes” and according to Billington it “adds a little touch of Magritte to the night.”

Taylor thinks that it’s “the design of the year”, but for Crompton it’s “slightly over-emphatic” and “occasionally over-complicates the action.”

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead – Is it any good?

Stoppard’s play is, by most accounts, as dazzling now as it ever was. There are some that disagree, opining that the whirlwind of existentialist invention is a busted flush, but most think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have the same exuberant intellectualism in 2017 as they did in 1967. And most think Radcliffe, McGuire and Haig are up to the tongue-twisting challenge in this four-star – that’s the average – show.

With Travesties still running in the West End, and Leveaux’s revival a confident, charismatic hit, Shuttleworth is certainly not wrong in remarking that “it’s a good time for early Stoppard on the London stage.”

How long will it remain so? Who knows? Perhaps we should flip a coin.

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