What a relief to see Canberra Rep's COVID-delayed Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead finally make it to performance. Tom Stoppard's take on two minor characters from the play Hamlet and their attempts to understand what is going on (in Hamlet and the universe in general) has been a delight for more than 50 years. Cate Clelland's production continues that delight.
With a sterling pair at its centre in Lainie Hart (Rosencrantz) and Josh Wiseman (Guildenstern), those whose memory of Hamlet might be hazy are soon brought up to speed. But, given the brevity of their scenes in the Shakespeare play and the fact that they seem to exist in a kind of limbo outside of it, there's a good chance of much dramatic irony when the audience discovers they know more than the characters do.
The joke is that even the King and Queen of Denmark (Cameron Thomas and Shannon Mitchell) don't seem to be able to tell them apart. But the play distinguishes them. Rosencrantz is the more cheerful one, not so bright. Guildenstern is gloomier, and more inclined to struggle with thought. They have been "sent for", but neither is clear why. Or why that is going to matter to the plot of Hamlet. An audience cluey about Shakespeare will enjoy the pile up of dramatic ironies.
Then there is the enigmatic figure of The Player. Arran McKenna is stylish, reserved and knowing in this role, heading up a very motley travelling acting troupe who seem prepared to cater for anything from plays to pornography. Even the troupe seem to be more in the know than Rosencrantz and Guildendstern.
Jack Shanahan's Hamlet works well as a bit of a wild-haired 19th-century Henry Irving type, with a touch of David Tennant craziness. Thomas' Claudius, Mitchell's Gertrude and Ian Russell's Polonius could go for more dangerousness and more sense of the lives that are being lived off stage in the rest of the play. The Player's troupe have a marvellous range of skills in juggling, tumbling and live music but could use a bit more sinister cohesion; that may come as the season progresses.
Annabel Foulds succeeds rather well as a small Ophelia repeatedly in tears, barely allowed to utter a line before she's awash.
The set is a little over busy for the limbo in which Rosencrantz and Guildendstern exist outside of their moments in the Hamlet universe. But there are some excellent visual moments with a mysterious up stage scrim. Nathan Sciberras's lighting design has some lovely textures in it.
Sound designers Neville Pye and Justin Mullins have come up with background sound and music that mostly mumbles away in a Shakespearian way without ever declaring itself fully.
Gender-blind casting doesn't matter a bit in this show. Shannon Mitchell's stately Gertrude nods at Shakespearian playing conventions and Lainie Hart is quite gormless as Rosencrantz in a performance happily reminiscent of the old pantomime principal boys. Of the Jenny Howard old Tivoli panto ilk (but not half as smart). Hart catches that rollicking style and it fits with Rosencrantz' carelessly witless character.
Wiseman's Guildenstern is the smarter of the pair but his reasoning is wildly wide of any mark. He is more inclined to try logic than Rosencrantz but as Wiseman's puzzled performance makes clear, he never really understands the game. The fates of the pair are inevitable but touching when they arrive.
Anything by Tom Stoppard is worth a visit but this early one remains a favourite. Rep's production catches much of the fun of this play that sits just outside the door of a much larger play, occasionally opening it. Brush up on Hamlet before you go.
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