Tom Stoppard is regarded justifiably as one of the world’s greatest living playwrights, in part for his monumental trilogy, The Coast of Utopia (which set a record for a play in 2007 by winning seven Tony Awards), and in part for Arcadia (which was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Play in 1995 and nominated again for Best Revival of a Play this year). But it was Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, now being revived by Big Rodent in a very satisfying production at the Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex, that originally launched Stoppard’s career, and it is that play which first comes to mind when his name is mentioned. Originally staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead exploded on Broadway a year later in a Royal National Theatre production that garnered eight Tony Award nominations (winning four, including Best Play) as well as an award for Best Play by the New York Drama Critics Circle in 1968 and an award for Outstanding Production from the Outer Critics Circle in 1969.
This is an extraordinary work – a tongue-in-cheek comedy and an existential and absurdist tour-de-force all in one and it owes as much to Samuel Beckett as it does to William Shakespeare. On one level, it is a comedic spin-off from Hamlet, focusing on the misadventures of two minor characters from the Shakespearean play, the courtiers Rosencrantz and Guldenstern. Shakespeare’s play begins with Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark, returning home from his studies abroad, only to discover his father dead and his mother, Gertrude, married to his father’s brother, Claudius (who has assumed the throne). Hamlet is plunged into melancholy, which surprises Claudius and Gertrude (apparently none too bright, those two!), prompting them to send for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, two of Hamlet's college friends - initially in the hopes that the courtiers might find out what ails him but, ultimately, to accompany him to England so that they might rid themselves of him entirely.
In Shakespeare’s play, Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are no more than incidental characters and what we are really meant to care about is what happens to Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius (a trusted advisor to Claudius), Ophelia (Polonius’ daughter and the love of Hamlet’s life) and Laertes (Polonius’ son). But in Stoppard’s play, everything is turned upside-down. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern assume center stage; they are blissfully unaware of the dramatic events roiling about them; and it is their personal plights which are meant to concern us.
And in Stoppard’s hands, the plights that confront Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern are predetermined – or not. They are inevitable – or coincidental – or accidental – or random – or fated - or a consequence of the exercise of one’s own free will – or not. In other words, they are just the sorts of events that allow Stoppard’s imagination to take flight and permit him to explore the mathematical and physical paradoxes which so obsess him in Arcadia, Hapgood, Jumpers, and most of the other works which comprise his intellectually exhilarating oeuvre.
And yet, on another level, the play could be a re-working of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern could be the very reincarnations of Estragon and Vladimir (the protagonists of Beckett’s greatest work) and the Player King and his acting troupe (who play important roles in Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead) could stand in well for Beckett’s Pozzo and Lucky.
In sum, Stoppard here addresses the fact that we all must go through life with limited knowledge – and yet we must go on. We, like Rosenkrantz and Guldenstern, don’t really know what’s going on about us, what is transpiring on the other side of the curtain, whether or not our seeming freedom of action is anything more than an illusion. And yet we must go on.
In this production, Big Rodent has taken the liberty of clothing the two courtiers, Rosenkrantz (Adam Aguirre) and Guildenstern (Jordan Gray), in relatively nondescript modern dress and has located the Player King (Jeremy Weber) and his band of itinerant actors temporally in the Victorian Age, with particular emphasis on the illusionist craze of that time. But those anachronisms are not negatives: on the contrary, they work to underscore the very illusory nature of life - which would appear to have been Stoppard’s intent in the first place.
The entire cast does a first rate job, but I was particularly taken with Aguirre, Gray and Weber in the principal roles. I think that Stoppard would be pleased.