There are two pairs of Rosencrantz and Guildensterns currently at large in London. One is part of a boldly modern take of Hamlet, with Andrew Scott in the title role. Being bold and modern, this Guildenstern is a woman with a heavily implied romantic history with the prince whom she and Rosencrantz are compelled to spy on.
The other pair forms the anxious double act in David Leveaux’s 50th-anniversary production of Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough play, here on the very stage where it made its professional debut. The first Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were played by Edward Petherbridge and John Stride (actually Stride played Rosencrantz and Petherbridge Guildenstern) in a production commissioned by the National Theatre’s inaugural artistic director, Laurence Olivier. Today the duo is played by Daniel Radcliffe as a taught, lean Rosencrantz and the RSC actor Joshua McGuire as the talkative Guildenstern.
It can never be a bad thing to see Shakespeare’s play before Stoppard’s, which riffs off key Hamlet scenes and turns the joke about which one is Rosencrantz and which Guildenstern into a long-running gag that never quite tires. But in a play that turns a couple of bit-part characters into complex cod-philosophers and actors who ruminate on, and panic about, mortality, it’s probably a distraction to dwell on how Stoppard’s existential play might have been affected if his Guildenstern were female. There’s plenty of other “what ifs” to be getting on with here.
If all this sounds intimidatingly highfalutin, as is often the case with Stoppard, then it might be worth paring matters down somewhat. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is as playful as it is profound, but it can also be summarised as a couple of short blokes (in the case of Leveaux’s terrific production) standing on a huge stage (in the case of the Old Vic) wondering what on earth is to become of them.
With designer Anna Fleischle’s sparse set, which is walled and ceilinged with panels of painted clouds that could have been ripped from The Sistine Chapel, the evening feels as Beckettian as it does Shakespearean. The repeated question “Shall we go?” has as much promise of escape for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as it does for Estragon and Vladimir, which is to say very little promise indeed.
To recap, in Shakespeare’s tragedy, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are the well-meaning mugs ordered by Hamlet’s uncle – now the king – to spy on his brooding nephew. They are eventually dispatched to England as part of a conspiracy to kill Hamlet, but which ends with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern being executed instead. It is the premonition of that sticky end that haunts these two.
The sinewy, compact Radcliffe is very good in a contained, inwardly anxious kind of way, while McGuire’s apparently more intelligent Guildenstern, by contrast, is a hive of nervous energy – the talkative opposite of Radcliffe’s introvert. Yet the revelation here is delivered by David Haig’s performance as The Player. In Shakespeare’s play, this is the leader of a troupe of actors who, at Hamlet’s behest, recreate his father’s murder in front of the murderer, Hamlet’s uncle, the king. Haig’s version – a long-haired hippie-cum-pagan – is a fantastically energising presence in a play that can tend to lose steam.
Simultaneously forlorn about the parlous condition of the acting business, yet ebullient on art's power to address the big questions, Haig’s actor is a streetwise philosopher who knows all there is to know about Rosnecrantz and Guildenstern’s greatest fear – that of dying on and off stage. No one in this story understands as much about life and death as he, except perhaps one of the pivotal characters who never made the transition from Shakespeare’s play to Stoppard’s: Hamlet’s gravedigger.