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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead starring Daniel Radcliffe – review at the Old Vic, London

Joshua McGuire and Daniel Radcliffe in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic, London. Photo:Tristram Kenton

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are far from dead, but alive and well and back home at the Old Vic, where, just a month shy of half a century ago, Tom Stoppard’s dazzling debut play received its London premiere.

The playwright was then soon to turn 30, and had produced it eight months earlier in a slightly shorter Oxford student production on the Edinburgh Fringe in August 1966.

The play has a youthful undergraduate wit, though Stoppard himself never went to university but received a different sort of theatrical training as a regional drama critic in Bristol.

One is, of course, never far from a production of Hamlet (this staging follows hard on the heels of Robert Icke’s penetrating, bang up-to-date Almeida production).  Stoppard’s genius was to riff on the core issues of the play, but spinning the coin to see it from the point of view of two peripheral characters, the titular friends from Wittenberg who are summonsed to help find the source of his melancholia and then to deliver him out of harm’s way.

There’s plenty of Beckett mixed in with their dilemma, most notably Waiting for Godot as the pair find infinite playful ways of passing the time with word games while they are awaiting their orders.

They’re spectators who become unwitting, unwilling participants in the shuffle of cards that fate has dealt them. Even if the play is in danger of recycling the same situation endlessly, it is kept buoyant here by the dexterity of Stoppard’s wit and of the verbally agile pair of actors playing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire.

They become a perfectly blended comedy double act. McGuire, who resembles a cross between Tom Hollander and Douglas Hodge, once played Hamlet, for a Shakespeare’s Globe tour in 2011, and has the brighter, sparkier personality. Radcliffe has a more wounding sense of introspection and doubt.

There’s also a flamboyantly comic turn from David Haig as the leader of the Players that come to entertain the court, but are also flirting with their own sense of impending redundancy; the portrait offered of this theatrical court life is both affectionate and affecting.

Director David Leveaux mines the play expertly for all its subplots and subtexts around the purpose and meaning of what each character is striving, mostly fruitlessly, towards, against Fleischle’s backdrop of panels with cloud-like shapes painted on them.

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This 50th anniversary revival of Tom Stoppard's play remains an audacious, hilarious riff on Hamlet