Could there be a better time than now for a revival of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead? Fifty years after the original production dazzled the West End, and with superb revivals of Hamlet and Travesties also playing in London, providing context and raising expectations, this is really the ideal time for a full-throttle revival. Sadly, David Levaux’ tedious production, which is long on self-indulgence but short on bravura performances, does not rise to the occasion. Dead is the word.
Edward Petheridge (the original Rosencrantz)
…Stoppard’s play…provides ‘a gloss not just on Shakespeare but on a distinctly 1960’s, seedy version…’
Jim Hunter – About Stoppard: the Playwright and the Work
Watching his revival of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead, now playing at The Old Vic, one could be forgiven for thinking that David Leveaux had never considered that Petheridge might be onto something or that the warning in Hunter’s words might need heeding. Because a play which dazzled the likes of Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson in 1967 is desperately dreary in his hands in 2017.
It’s not the play. As recently as 2011, Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker made a delicious and intelligent duo in the title roles, and brought the play to ingenious and complex theatrical life under Sir Trevor Nunn’s care.
Here, that simply does not happen. The text remains flat and unleavened, no directorial vision breathes life into any aspect of it. Leveaux does not find the diamonds in the vaults, indeed there is no real sign he looks for them or thinks they might be there. He shines no fresh or insightful life into Stoppard’s work. The traces he leaves on the play are like stains, coarsening the inherent value of the writing, diminishing it.
Anna Fleischle’s set is quite pretty, beautiful even. But quite what it has to do with illuminating Stoppard’s play or contextualising it, or giving it a new edge, is anyone’s guess. There are sumptuous curtains which work nicely in creating the off-stage effect necessary to remind of the fringe dwelling status of the two leads, but that’s about it.
Costumes seem to be poking fun. Luke Mullins, a gifted actor, is wasted here on the thankless task of being (apparently) a dull version of Olivier’s Danish Prince, complete with tunic and lipstick: he looks great, but that’s it.
The other costumes seem to evoke something, but quite what is never sure, although Marianne Oldham’s excruciating Gertrude seemed a shadow of Miranda Richardson’s Queenie. If so, why?
David Haig and his raggedy group of circus type players seem like they may have been in a repertory company: Hamlet in the evening, Hair in the afternoon, using the same costumes for thrift. Or they might have straggled out of The Rhythm Of Life from Sweet Charity. Either way, they look lost and listless, so their costumes match their performances, although Mathew Durkan tries manfully to make something touching out of his character’s cards: skirts and sexual abuse.
Leveaux does not seem to understand what Stoppard’s play is about or what it’s strengths and difficulties are. No mastery of the quicksilver nature of the language is evident; no joy in the situation is distilled; no aspect of the theatrical genius sewn into the script is given true flight. Most heinously, Levaux’ treatment is studiously unfunny, relentlessly dull.
Partly, this has to do with casting, but predominantly it is a total lack of directorial ability. Leveaux is simply unequal to the challenges here.
Nor are his stars, well, two of them at least.
Joshua McGuire is hopelessly one note as Guildenstern. He plays the role exactly as he has played others (Amadeus; The Magistrate) with fussy, wide-eyed, camp insolence, but there is no sense of magic or ingenuity or intelligence about the performance. Most egregiously, he makes no effort to form a double act with Daniel Radcliffe’s Guildenstern, presumably thinking he is the better, more skilled actor. Wrong.
Radcliffe does the best work, although McGuire’s tedious grandstanding makes his task impossible. It’s impossible to play Rosencrantz without a decent Guildenstern but Radcliffe at least tries. There is a gentle whimsy to his performance and he conveys well the character’s eagerness, embarrassment, raw panic and shy hope. His timing is excellent too. With a proper Guildenstern (where is Barnett?) Radcliffe might have flown.
Haig makes an incoherent, but quite repellant, Player King. There is a nice line in bellicôse buffoonery, but otherwise he seems like a mish-mash of Jimmy Saville and Daddy Brubeck. But without a solid Hamlet world to play against and off, nothing is achieved. Haig flutters in the breeze.
William Chubb is superb as Polonious; skill and wry observation making every moment count. It’s not his fault, but Chubb’s ability puts others into sharp relief. Wil Johnson is incomprehensible as Claudius, a smudge on the Elsinore stucco. Mullins, Oldham and Helena Wilson’s dull eyed Ophelia provide Johnson with similarly unfocused company. Quite what Leveaux sought to achieve with these performances is unclear. None of them work, except Chubb.
Tickets sell for £65. People who pay that money are desperate to get value for it. That translates into laughter on occasion during the enervating first Act but it is never hearty, or brimming with understanding and empathy. It’s bizarre but there it is.
Levaux’ Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is a travesty. Chubb and Radcliffe give it some grace and energy, but it is not enough. Levaux’ shortcomings are too severe to be overcome.
This is a Stoppard soufflé which just never, ever rises.
If you can’t offload your ticket to an unloved relative, flee at interval. The world will seem a better place.