ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD
Chichester Festival Theatre, W. Sussex
Opened 31 May, 2011
****

If you are very lucky, once or twice in a lifetime you chance upon a writer who you feel is writing just for you, touching the uttermost depths of your being. I first had that feeling with the early plays of Tom Stoppard: here, I knew, was someone speaking direct to the smart-alecky sixth-former I was at the time. Stoppard and I have both matured in the subsequent decades, but I still feel youthfully reinvigorated on revisiting work such as this, his breakthrough play which effectively refracts Waiting For Godot through the prism of two minor characters from Hamlet.
    
Every now and then we see Ros & Guil (as the script calls them for short) and/or other figures at the Danish court exchange a few of Shakespeare's lines, before the others go off and leave the central duo to muse on the purpose of existence and its end, and to engage in rallies of Stoppardian high-speed, oblique wordplay ("The fingernails continue to grow after death... The toenails on the other hand never grow at all"). If this is not your bag, you will likely be infuriated by it; if (like my poor companion) you have never seen Hamlet, much of it will be Greek to you. To those who remain, I commend Samuel Barnett's gorgeously puppyish Rosencrantz, his fellow History Boys alumnus Jamie Parker's more existentially insecure but scarcely less comic Guildenstern, and Chris Andrew Mellon (taking over at short notice from Tim Curry) as the leader of the troupe of players, at once bluff and menacing, personifying the illusory and the unknown that vex our nondescript heroes.
    
Trevor Nunn's production (which moves into the West End later this month as part of his season as annual artistic director at the Haymarket) dresses all characters in period costume except Ros & Guil, whose more unspecific but thematically designed clothing lets them straddle our world and that of the play. Nunn brings out the pensive undercurrents (the pair are even first discovered beneath a stunted Godot-like tree) whilst also relishing all the possibilities for play... the latter perhaps excessively so, with a slightly distended press-night duration of two and three-quarter hours. Nevertheless, this is an evening to delight those who enjoy laughing at clever gags not simply to show that they understand but because they actually are funny.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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