Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Chichester Festival Theatre (now at the Haymarket), June 2011

To the question of whether, if God is good and omnipotent why does evil exist, the answer is free will. But is free will illusory? As Guildenstern says, ‘… if we happened, just happened to discover, or even suspect, that our spontaneity was part of their order, we’d know that we were lost’. Indeed they are lost. Opportunities arise, but they see themselves as small players in a bigger drama they don’t understand, unable to influence larger events. On the ship to England, they could destroy the letter they accidentally open, yet they don’t, not even to save Hamlet’s life. These minor characters from Shakespeare are twin axes around which Tom Stoppard’s thought-provoking play turns, and they were superbly played by Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker — or was it the other way round?

Jamie Parker as Guildenstern and Samuel Barnett as Rosencrantz, all photos by Catherine Ashmore

The play itself is riveting, philosophical, and very funny. I love the coin tossing at the start, with 92 heads in a row. ‘Consider: One, probability is a factor which operates within natural forces. Two, probability is not operating as a factor. Three, we are now held within un‑, sub- or super-natural forces. Discuss’. Thus speaks Jamie Parker’s articulate Guildenstern. Samuel Barnett’s thoughtful Rosencrantz is also no slouch with his, ‘Whatever became of the moment when one first knew about death? … I can’t remember it. It never occurred to me at all. We must be born with an intuition of mortality’. Yet both of these spontaneously ready fellows articulate a sort of nonsense, counterbalancing the apparent nonsense spoken by Hamlet, which they try to explain, ‘I think I have it. A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself/ Or just as mad/ Or just as mad/ And he does both/ So there you are/ Stark raving sane’. Their subject, Hamlet, is nobly portrayed by Jack Hawkins, effortlessly reaching heights of free will to which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern cannot aspire.

Stoppard’s play is clever and intellectual, but above all it’s wonderful theatre. The players, led by Chris Andrew Mellon, who has replaced Tim Curry, give a hyper-theatrical contrast to the confused quasi-intellectualism of the two main characters, and Mellon himself is superbly quick and ready in his responses.

R and G on board the ship

A friend said she’d love to see this Stoppard play again and take her teenage son, who’s never seen Hamlet. Quite right — you don’t need to know Hamlet to appreciate this quick-witted theatre, beautifully brought to life in Trevor Nunn’s production, well aided by Tim Mitchell’s lighting. Scene changes take place invisibly, right under our noses, and I loved the spot-lights on the faces of R and G just before and just after the interval. There was a perfection about this entire staging, with Simon Higlett’s clever but simple designs, and Fotini Dimou’s excellent costumes. Not to be missed.

Performances at Chichester continue until June 11 — for more details click here. This production then transfers to the Theatre Royal Haymarket in London’s West End, with previews starting on June 16.

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