Tom Stoppard turns 80 this year -- so it is appropriate that theatreland is celebrating with new productions of two of his earliest successes. His 1974 play Travesties is currently back in the West End at the Apollo Theatre, transferred from the Menier Chocolate Factory. Now his first major success Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is being revived as well at its original London home the Old Vic, exactly fifty years after its 1967 professional premiere there (an earlier, shorter version received an Edinburgh fringe production the summer before).
And while I have to confess that I find great chunks of Travesties completely unfathomable, I had a much happier time at Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are Dead. Just as deep familiarity with Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Earnest is needed to fully appreciate Travesties, so it is essential that spectators at Rosencrantz have a more than passing familiarity with Hamlet. Since I've just seen and loved London's latest Hamlet at the Almeida in the shape-shifting form of Andrew Scott, I was well prepared for the no less shape-shifting assault Stoppard makes on Shakespeare here.
The audacity of Scott and his director Robert Icke in giving a vivid contemporary theatrical life to Hamlet in Islington is even exceeded in Stoppard's still astonishing riff on that play here, and in David Leveaux's terrific, fast-paced production and its speed-of-light philosophical discussions.
The play is both a profound meditation on mortality and a frequently hilarious but respectful send-up of Hamlet, with its plot viewed through the prism of two of its minor characters: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two university pals of Hamlet who are summonsed to Elsinore to attempt to cure him of his melancholia - and when that fatally fails, to accompany him as he's despatched from Denmark to England.
Of course, as in Hamlet, it's not going to end well for anyone, but Stoppard's delight in language makes this far, far funnier than any production of Hamlet could ever be. And it is blessed with a pair of stunning comic performances, with Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire a perfectly contrasting double act in the title roles -- the latter maintaining a heads-up disposition (reflected in his repeated correct calling of heads in the spin of a coin) and the former more doubting and distressed.
No less brilliant in the comic stakes is the ever-outstanding David Haig as the leader of the players, who come to entertain the court and get themselves famously embroiled in Hamlet's own scheme to uncover the treachery of his stepfather Claudius.
The result is a glistening delight and another triumph for Matthew Warchus's Old Vic.
Rosencrantz and Guidenstern are Dead Tickets are now on sale.
What the Press Said...
"Tom Stoppard's philosophical comedy still shines brightly."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"The pacing is fleet, the timing slick, and memorable moments are in sufficiently plentiful supply."
Dominic Cavendish for The Telegraph
"strange and charming, always clever and sometimes soulful."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard