In what appears to be a growing trend for O’Reilly productions this term, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is sold out. Entirely. Even the Saturday matinee performance – that usual bastion of empty seats – has no tickets left. Whatever marketing magic The Armchair Theatre Company conjured, it worked. Perhaps even one crewmember’s dreadful boast (uttered in the smoking area of Cellar) that this is ‘sort of the BNOC play for this term’ was a planned ruse to stir up attention. Who knows.
In any case, sold out show or not, this production was always going to be notable. Oxford students formed the cast of the very first production of Stoppard’s break-out hit, so there is a nice cyclical feeling here (even if the original production was, I concede, performed at the Edinburgh Fringe). The play’s timing also seems fitting – last term we had the much talked-about but ultimately rather inconsequential production of Hamlet, also at the O’Reilly, so this comes as almost a sort of sequel.
One of the highlights of that production, Ieuan Perkins, returns here, but this time as Guildenstern rather than Hamlet. He is joined by a significant portion of Hamlet’s cast, as well as Cassian Bilton as Rosencrantz. The two work very well together. They comically play off one another more than adequately, but what is really remarkable is their ability to communicate with nothing more than a look. Their rapport has a naturalness evocative of brotherhood.
The casting of Chloe Wall as the Player is an interesting one. Casting a woman in the role adds a new layer to an already multi-layered play, and the gender dimension created by her condescending exchanges with the two male leads is curious, and a more than welcome addition. However, whilst I applaud Wall’s ability to distinguish her character’s weirdness in a play oversaturated with the stuff, she has a tendency to deliver lines either too fast or too quiet to comprehend. If I struggled to hear some of her wit in the second row, I can only imagine the frustration of those sat towards the back of the packed O’Reilly.
Placing the weight of this criticism solely on Wall’s head is unfair, however, as coherence of oration (or lack thereof) is a problem that crops up throughout the play – Bilton, for instance, is also guilty at times. This may, of course, boil partly down to opening night nerves, but I suspect there is a deeper directorial issue here: that of a directing team that has become too complacent with their own knowledge of an extraordinarily complicated and wordy script. I would argue a little more should have been done in rehearsals (especially dress) to ensure Stoppard’s wit transmits to the audience.
Flora Holmes’s set is simple but clever. The boxes which form the staging are covered in beige canvas and topped with pinewood – something of a blank canvas befitting Stoppard’s description of ‘a place without any visible character’. When, in the third act, the pinewood become the planks of the ship, we must smile at the simplistic ingenuity in the choice of materials. Beige also forms the cornerstone of James Stokes’s lighting design, as whenever it takes over from the otherwise pervasive “Nordic” (the production team’s word, not mine) blue hue we know that a Hamlet scene is not far off. The cues are well-executed and there were, as far as I could notice, no first-night slip ups. Ella Baron’s costumes neatly tie into the colour scheme, with the two leads dressed in inverse assortments of grey and blue (with Perkins in a particularly “Nordic” sweater), Claudius and Gertrude in beige (the former dons a rather comical cricket jumper), and the players in inscrutable black. (Hamlet wears the stereotypical black turtleneck and black trousers.) My main criticism of the technical side of the production falls on the use of ambient music during the dumb shows and the final scene from Hamlet. Why is it here? What does it communicate? It seems an incongruous attempt at edgy soundscaping, much to the detriment of the tone of the scenes it is applied to.
The post-interval third act falls rather flat on its face – it is tempting to say that the play would have been more effective (or at least less flawed) if it had stopped at the end of the second act. But this is a criticism of this production rather than of Stoppard’s text. While there are many, many laughs during the first half, the tone is a little too grave throughout these first two acts for there to be any existential progression in the two leads. This is partly due to Perkins playing Guildenstern rather like he played Hamlet: over-serious and bolshie. Whilst this is perhaps acceptable for Shakespeare’s lead, I point to Stoppard’s character note for Guildenstern – that he is ‘worried’ by the existential implications his musings raise, but that he is ‘not going to panic about it’. His panic should come at the end, not throughout. Bilton does better at keeping light-hearted in the play’s earlier scenes, though this is partially due to the text’s disposition to place Rosencrantz in the role of spectator to Guildenstern’s musings. Subsequently, when Ros and Guil reach their final realisation –whatever that really is– it fails to feel like the endpoint of a journey, but rather takes the same monotonous, odorous tone of graveness that is secreted throughout. If only Stoppard’s postmodern playfulness had been given the space to shine in all its droll glory.
Originally published in the Cherwell newspaper, 11 February 2016.