‘Eternity is a terrible thought. I mean, where’s it going to end?’ asks Rosencrantz anxiously during Tom Stoppard’s play of existential angst. Fittingly, at the end of the Autumn season at the New Theatre, the characters of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, drawn and fleshed out from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, are reaching the end of the line.
On a bare stage front, before a heap of paraphernalia from the season’s other plays, the duo, ably played by Rich Davis and Grace Beckett, spin coins and question the nature of being as they struggle through their existence. They strain to remember their lives before they were sent for; their hapless encounters with the other characters, who are aware of their own places in Shakespeare’s construction, reflect their nature as pawns of fate. Outside of the world of Hamlet, these mere creations find they have no other reason for being, but these deep themes are imparted with much humour as well as pathos. Similarly dressed in grey jackets and red bow-ties, the protagonists entertain as much as they sadden and make you think. Grace Beckett portrays a sharp-thinking Guildenstern, working through the logistics of life’s problems. Meanwhile Rich Davis is a gormless but lovable Rosencrantz. Together the actors have a fine chemistry that expresses the deep bond of two characters bound together in a desperate situation.
In this production, directed by Peter Bradley and produced by Kathryn Feoners and Lawrence Bolton, the band of travelling actors are presented as seedy, burlesque prostitutes, an apt connection considering both sell the services of their bodies. They are dressed in worn, clown-cum-harlot costumes, led by the principal Player (Emma McDonald) in circus coat and suspenders, who at some points declaims her speech in a sultry fashion, and at others, cracks a whip to keep her company in line. The group cavort in a tableaux of scenes from previous New Theatre plays, including a A Midsummer’s Night Dream condensed into a few mimes, and perform perverse versions of old tragedies and comedies, with poor, terrified cross-dresser Alfred (Tom Dineen) continually the victim of depravity. Their rendering of the dumb show for ‘The Murder of Gonzago’ is a highlight. It is a complete farce, but also serves as a foretelling of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s fates. This sense of inevitability runs through the play; many in the audience will already be aware of the pair’s fate from Shakespeare’s tragedy.
As this play retells the story of Hamlet from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s perspective, we see snatches of the major characters in their own scenes. The performances are overtly theatrical, befitting their status as the major players of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The haughty Hamlet himself (Oliver Kiddell) passes across the stage and silently soliloquises, while the embarrassed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern note “He’s talking to himself”. Josh Kaiser portrays a magnificently pompous, verbose Polonius, while Nick Barker and Ginny Lee present the oily, usurping King Claudius and his complicit Queen, Gertrude. Meanwhile, a dark contrast is created as Emma Louise Amanshia’s distraught Ophelia, rejected by Hamlet, is cruelly left to weep on the floor while the players continue their rehearsal around her. We are reminded that all life is an act, even to “act natural” as the Player advises.
Despite the continual questioning of life and the presence of death, the exuberance of the play spills out into the foyer of the theatre, with props scattered around and some juggling and flame spinning taking place beforehand, alongside circus music. Inside, the lighting varies to place the protagonists under the spotlight, or a shade of blue which creates a fantastical performance atmosphere, complementing the themes of acting and mortality perfectly.
The play, and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves, roll inexorably towards their ends ‘with the knowledge that for all the compasses in the world, there’s only one direction, and time is its only measure’.