Long Live Rosencrantz and Guildenstern

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Sydney Theatre Company)

Sydney Theatre

August 6 – September 7

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There are many reasons why “Hamlet” can justifiably be decreed as one of the greatest plays of all time. Shakespeare’s tragic tale of the young Danish prince holds an enduring appeal; the play provides incisive insights into life and the human experience. But there is comedy as well as contemplation. The way Hamlet mocks Polonius, Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and Claudius by feigning lunacy, for example, is jocular.

But who exactly are these “Hamlet” bit-players, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern?  This is exactly what Tom Stoppard’s “Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” sets out to explore. And it is a superb premise for a very funny drama of confusion and word play, bringing together Tim Minchin and Toby Shmitz in a Sydney Theatre Company coup.

It is inspired casting. Schmitz is commanding in the role of Guildenstern, giving an outstanding performance of philosophical reflection with Jack Sparrowesque appeal, while Minchin’s innocent, naïve silliness as Rozencrantz charmingly presents the other side of the coin. Their camaraderie creates a clear connection and together they work wonderfully to perfectly present pun and pathos alike. This is especially evident in the scenes that see the characters playing a verbal tennis game where they lob questions at each other in an attempt to find order in the chaos. Words of wit and default wisdom tumble delightfully in a rhythmic cavalcade of double entredres, allusions and puns for the audience’s lingering consideration beyond the play’s poignant conclusion.

The protagonists have little memory, no understanding of what they are doing and a concern that life is pre-determined (aka scripted). They exist merely as accessories to another narrative, characters who pop in, do their bit and disappear again. What happens to them between scenes? As the gravediggers struggle to realise identity and purpose in a world that makes little sense, the play balances between absurdist theatre and slapstick humour in a manner that can be enjoyed by anybody and appreciated by “Hamlet” enthusiasts. This is complemented by the production’s bold staging. The set design is minimalist and post-modern, but incredibly interesting, using a steeply sloped stage and a series of tunnels into the wings through which “Hamlet” players enter and exit, which conveys the feel of being stuck in a piece of existential art.

“Rozencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is a genius play as it builds upon the “Hamlet” concept of a play within a play by presenting a play on the periphery of a play (fragments of the actual action of “Hamlet” taking place in the background). Indeed, it is conceptual, verbose and quick-witted, resulting in captivating chaos, challenge and ultimately poignancy of the most entertaining order.

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