Trevor Nunn was due to direct the premiere of Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough play way back in 1965 as the opening show of an RSC season of new theatre in London. 46 years later he has his chance to correct the pitfalls of fate and give it a go as part of the Trevor Nunn Season at the Haymarket, which opened with Flare Path and is set to close with The Tempest. Nunn is very familiar with Stoppard’s other work as well, having directed his masterpiece, Arcadia, at the National in ’96 and this marriage looks, at least on paper, to be made in heaven.
The main theme of the play is not so divine, at least not explicitly. Stoppard’s brilliant script is, however, and dashes between the intelligent rhythmic wordplay that has become a signature of his style and philosophical musings on meaning, probability, chaos and most importantly, death, being just as hilarious as it is deflating. Drawn from the inspired suggestion from his agent at the time, Kenneth Ewing, that he write a play about Shakespeare’s ignominious duo from Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, Stoppard proceeded to re-invent the courtiers as a Beckettian double-act and recreate the story of Hamlet from their perspective as a series of events much akin to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend much of the play musing over similar concepts to what you imagine a younger Vladimir and Estragon would and in a wonderfully energetic fashion from the tossing of coins to the game of questions, both of which are well staged here.
Death is the central theme not only in Stoppard’s text, but also in Waiting for Godot and Hamlet, giving a strong point of synthesis between the two and at no point in the production does Nunn let you forget the title; as the bewildered courtiers scrabble around on stage desperately trying to find meaning and some certainty you, sitting in the audience, are aware, painfully at times, that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead.
This similarity is where Nunn chooses to style the play, opening with the courtiers alone and entertaining themselves by a leafless tree. The play continues in this melancholy fashion for distraction until the arrival of the Player and his troupe, eerily reminiscent of Pozzo and the very un-Lucky, at which point it all becomes that bit more sinister. The Player himself is ascribed a very dark nature and his input changes the mood dramatically. The opening is slow and heavy; the light-heartedness of the jokes are lost and the energy is low, struggling to pick up. The scene change brings an added dynamism with the scenes from Hamlet flowing in and out apace, leaving the pair thoroughly lost. These scenes are fantastically incorporated by both Stoppard and Nunn.
One of the triumphs of the production was Simon Higlett’s set. The light streaming through the floorboards was great and the scene for the boat was brilliantly done, keeping the dark tone and adding character to what had previously been a bare stage. There was some strong casting in choosing Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker for the lead roles; their work together on the critically acclaimed and ridiculously (but justifiably) successful version of The History Boys gives them a natural familiarity that informs their close friendship on stage. It is certainly very easy to buy into the closeness of their relationship. Parker is the standout performer, launching into long speeches and confusing rationales without hesitation and with believably characterization. His confusion and desperation were believable, much more so than Barnett, who floundered around the stage fulfilling the stereotypes of camp actors. He relied on a set of expressions that became repetitious and although he was funny he didn’t capture the innocence of Rosencrantz in the way that Parker captured the desperation of Guildenstern. He was good but Parker set a higher benchmark.
This friendship, which is the core of the play, is somewhat undermined by the gimmicks that are thrown at it, notably the overriding campness of the whole affair. There are obvious homosexual undertones in the text but it feels as though they are trying to force a more overtly physical relationship than there should be and their mannerisms are so camp that they become tiresome, especially when accompanied by the justifiably camp Player. Mellon is played as a dark omen, a shady and untrustworthy character that reminds you of the devil whispering in your ear. The sinister nature of the Player works well and his troupe of players feel suitably exploited and desperate. Mellon himself has a presence that is much needed on stage and he works well with the leading pair, doing well after stepping in for Tim Curry.
This is one of my favourite plays, its dynamism and intelligence make it energetic and fun with the philosophical inquiry and the central theme of death give it a gravitas that is enlightening and fascinating. Nunn’s production lacks the cohesion and the energy that gives is that enjoyable edge, instead slathering it with a heavily Becekttian overtone and style at the expense of much of the script. It is very much a reimagining of Waiting for Godot as opposed to an extension of Hamlet or even a hybrid between the two. The text thrives on the combination of Beckett and Shakespeare, which is cut in half by Nunn. Parker is brilliant but he can’t carry the show on his own and although it’s not necessarily a bad show, it is rather underwhelming.
Written by Tom Stoppard; Directed by Trevor Nunn; At the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London; Starring Samuel Barnett, Jamie Parker, Chris Andrew Mellon, Katherine Press, Jack Hawkins; Runs from 16 June 11 - 20 August 11.
John Ord (13/07/2011)