Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead (Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble)
Roma Street Parklands
August 23 – September 9
With the twilight of a Roma Street Parklands’ Sunday afternoon-into-nightfall hued in blue, the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble’s band provides its evening’s audience with pre-show entertainment. Although this is so often the case for QSE shows, it is especially fitting for “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead” given the speculative tragicomedy’s opening line…. “There is an art to the building up of suspense.”
The words come from Guildenstern (Paige Poulier) to Rosencrantz (Ellen Hardisty) as the two Elizabethans pass time betting on the toss of a coin. The duo are the bickering bit-players of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet”, childhood friends of the Danish Prince traveling to Elsinore after having been summoned by the treacherous King Claudius (who murdered Hamlet’s father to obtain the throne), to distract the young Dane from his apparent madness and if possible discover its cause. Only in this instance they seem unaware of their role in the larger drama and confused by the play’s events, such is the nature of Tom Stoppard’s 1966 absurdist play, which expands upon the exploits of the courtiers.
The action takes place mainly ‘in the wings’ of Shakespeare’s play, with brief appearances of major characters from “Hamlet” who enact fragments of the original’s scenes. (The title is taken directly from the final scene of the Shakespearen text). Between these episodes the two protagonists voice their confusion at the progress of events occurring onstage without them. Then, after witnessing a performance of “The Murder of Gonzago”, they find themselves on a ship taking the exiled Prince Hamlet to England (if England even exists). They have intention to give the English king a letter instructing him to kill Hamlet. Instead, Hamlet discovers this and switches the letter for another. When the ship is attacked by pirates, Hamlet disappears and the letter is discovered to now include instruction to execute them (because what Shakespeare play is complete without a letter complication of some sort).
There is not a lot information given about the titular protagonists; there is expectation that viewers are familiar with “Hamlet”, on which so much of its plot is based. So it clever to see the inside-out play cleverly featuring as part of a double bill, a first for the company, which sees the ensemble of 15 actors presenting it in ‘rep’ with “Hamlet”, alternating shows each night with actors playing the same role in both plays. And after experiencing their “Hamlet” first, (which is the recommended viewing order), there is an additional layer of appreciation that comes from seeing scene snippets play out identically as they did in the first instance. This also adds to audience contemplation as while in “Hamlet” we maybe disregarded Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, when they are condemned to death by the now-antagonist Hamlet (Silvan Rus), we are encouraged to consider them afresh. Indeed, it is interesting to see the Danish prince anew even though he has no new lines, only some extra scene-time during the journey to England.
Perhaps even more unfortunate than the concluding killing spree of “The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark” (to use the play’s complete title), is the misfortune of witnessing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern come to grips with their disposability as plot devices in the play. After all the frivolity of the night’s absurdity, there is a lingering sadness as they leave the stage with implication that they believe they will be given chance to live, frustrated by the lack of certainty as to if the characters are killed or not (they have, after all, spent the entire play misunderstanding their circumstances).
With such a range of emotions evoked, it is easy to appreciate the play’s function as a metaphor for the absurdity of life. As the enigmatic leader of the travelling actors (Colin Smith) observes, ‘life is a gamble, at terrible odds—if it was a bet you wouldn’t take it. While the theatre of the absurd may be characterised by its ignorance of traditional structures and (literal) ridiculousness, in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” The QSE has made the style all the more accessible to even the most reluctant of audience members; the modern-classic is as funny as even in its quick and clever word play, and volleying dialogue delivery. The pace only wanes slightly after intermission, however, this is due more to the script than the energy of the protagonists’ performances.
Poulier starts strongly as the smarter-of-the-two Guildenstern in speculation that the two have entered an alternate universe, in which normal laws of probability, time, and chance do not apply. Despite spending most of the play in bafflement as Rosencrantz (often needing reminder even as to personal identity), Hardisty brings much humour to the role, especially in a ‘game of questions’ during which the pair maintain a dialogue of asking questions back and forth for as long as possible, without making any declarative statement, in which she uses physicality to heighten competitiveness to great comic effect. of questions physicality to competitiveness. Also a standout is Colin Smith as the First Player, prancing about the stage in attempt to lewdly pimp out and provoke interest in his troupe band, collectively known as the Tragedians. He milks every bit of wit from his character’s speeches, entertaining with his every movement, gesture, look and facial expression. And it is wonderful to see more of the troupe’s melodrama in rehearsal of the play within a play to catch the conscience of the king.
Whereas Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” is a tragedy with minor moments of comedy, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is a comedy with occasional moments of tragedy and there are a lot of deep philosophical truths evident in its nonsensical ramblings. This means that although its irreverence is central, the play often sways into big themes around life’s complexities, about morality and death as the ultimate negative (in addition to the dangers of going on a trip on a ship) and in amongst its continual questions and mixed metaphor word plays, there are a lot of meta-theatre mentions for audience appreciation.
In the hands of the Queensland Shakespeare Ensemble, the juxtapositions of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s misadventures and musings are highly entertaining. Additionally, there is also the appeal of the play’s location; like always, the unique Roma Street Parkland setting aesthetics contribute much to the experience, such as when scenes end with the travelling troupe of performers dispersing into the night or, on Sunday night, when the show features a possum assuming a short-lived starring role.