This play is based on an idea which is, quite simply, inspired. Take 2 minor characters from one of Shakespeare's best-known plays - Hamlet - and turn them into major characters who reflect on their existence, struggling to understand their place in a scenario which they know nothing about. One would think that idea more than sufficient to create a staggeringly funny play. But Tom Stoppard's dialogue - especially in the exchanges between the two main characters - RosenCrantz and Guildenstern - is, for the most part, tedious.
Apparently, director Trevor Nunn discovered the play among a pile of unproduced manuscripts early on in his career, but lack of funds meant he couldn't produce it as intended. Now, he has found the chance to tackle it in his season at the Haymarket and, for the most part, he's made a good job of it. Simon Higlett's design is bleak and morose being almost entirely black, apart from the arches which form the interior of the palace in Elsinore. So, it's left to Fotini Dimou's glorious costumes to inject some much-needed colour. Tim Mitchell's lighting also truly sparkles with a terrific starry sky right over the stage on the slatted ceiling. Steven Edis's music is delicately haunting, but seems inappropriate to capture the overall mood.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are, in a very real sense, half-developed characters and intentionally so. They are seeking their own personas as much as trying to understand the plot with which they have somehow become entwined. They can't even remember their own names most of the time, and though that is funny at first, it becomes waring. The two characters are well-contrasted with Jamie Parker's Guildenstern the more philosophical of the pair, but rather mechanical in his actions. Samuel Barnett's Rosencrantz is more practical, more of a worrier, more hysterical and more camp. Chris Andrew Mellon is a wonderfully roguish Player, leading the troupe of impoverished travelling actors who have fallen on hard times to the extent that they will consider doing absolutely anything for money.
Usually described as an absurdist, tragi-comedy, there's far too much of the cleverly-contrived absurd, and too little of the truly comic. The opening scene where we first meet the central characters involves endless coin tossing which rapidly becomes mind-numbingly tedious. Moreover, it sets the tone for the rest of the scenes between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which quickly instil dread. To be fair, things do look up in the second half when the pair find themselves embroiled in events in the Danish court, and there's little to carp about in the technical department or direction. But the huge promise embodied in the play's basic concept just never gets realised, leaving one with a deep sense of disappointment and a touch of bitterness.
"The play itself will be anathema to many. While lots of Stoppard's jokes still have bite, much of the humour that once struck audiences as dazzlingly original hasn't aged well...it is satisfyingly reflective, succeeding thanks to the appeal of the leads - an inspired casting choice. "
Henry Hitchings for Evening Standard
"It’s a great double act in Trevor Nunn’s spirited revival.
Michael Coveney for The Stage
The following are the reviews from the show's opening at Chichester a few weeks on 1 June 2011, before transferring to Haymarket...
"I reluctantly have to report, however, that the play no longer seems the exhilarating firecracker of old. The years have diminished it, and the piece now seems wearingly clever-clever and excessively in debt to Waiting for Godot...The jokes are often excellent...but after a while the endless display of wit becomes exhausting rather than enjoyable."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"Nunn's production not only gets to the play's emotional core, but also artfully distinguishes between the two leads. Samuel Barnett's outstanding Rosencrantz strikes an often hilarious note of panic and fluster in the face of uncertainty, while Jamie Parker's Guildenstern strives to maintain an air of Socratic stoicism."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Pretension is here in spades. Entertainment is not."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail