LUKE JONES, FRESH FROM HAMLET, SPINS WITH ECSTASY AT THE NEW R & G
I first and last saw this play whilst at school. It was slowly and quite unforgivingly murdered by fellow sixth formers. The morbidity, fear and blood-pumping humanity of it was drained, clearing the way for a flat single-note attempt at the play’s playful side. It was a matter of heads or tails which speech or run of dialogue they would have a stab at next, so unsteady was their grasp of the text. It was hard to appreciate this is one of the best plays a person has written or an audience heard.
But this Old Vic 50th anniversary hoo-ray revival knows that Tom Stoppard offers more than just bouncy a turn of phrase and logical fireworks. Although it does have all of that as well.
Its premise – the offstage story of two of Hamlet’s minor characters – seems predisposed to intellectual fluff and literary grandstanding. But David Leveaux’s production balances the coin on its edge, giving Stoppard’s wit, but also the incredible stench of tragedy. You can see the roots of this in the casting of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Josh McGuire has the spark of a thinking-man’s sitcom lead and Daniel Radcliffe looks like death. But both do both. Each manoeuvre through the semi-automatic dialogue perfectly (and I mean that – not a single misfire) but they also allow space to let the play’s ruthlessness fester and take hold.
The perfect tragedy of two unwitting pawns, manoeuvred by events beyond their understanding to an end they have no explanation for suits these two actors beautifully. McGuire is well known on the stage for his zippy tempo and sharp delivery. But to see this collapse every now and again, revealing flickers of despair, is heartbreaking. Likewise Radcliffe’s morose Guildenstern, whipped up into a frantic and repressed fury, is wonderful. The players are a tightly choreographed musical band of interesting freaks and the proper characters from Shakespeare’s side of the proceedings are nicely hammy.
But the over-and-above treat we don’t deserve is David Haig as The Player (the leader of the ragtag group of players who so convincingly replay Hamlet’s uncle’s crime back at him). If life is the terrible game of odds his character convinces us it is, Haig shows us most convincingly both the heads of joy and the tails of cruelty. He plays with more camp abandon than anyone else on stage, he’s slimey, mystical and oddly pervy. He has some of the best speeches and wrings out every last emotional twist.
Roll this into a double bill with the Almeida’s knock-out Hamlet up the road and not only will you feel like the cleverest person walking the earth, you’ll also be emotionally knackered.
Until 29th April
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