In 1988 Tom Stoppard told the Paris Review: “if I had an ideal spectator it would be someone more sharp-witted and attentive than the average theatregoer.” Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), the play that catapulted a twenty-something Stoppard to fame, is written with such an audience in mind. Hamlet, existential philosophy, mathematical probability, and the nature of the theatre (and, by extension, of life) are combined in a play that has become essential viewing for audiences who want theatre to challenge their minds as much as their hearts.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead follows the exploits of the eponymous characters as they are thrust into the events played out in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The action of Stoppard’s play is threaded through with scenes from Shakespeare’s masterpiece, which more often than not leave Rosencrantz and Guildenstern baffled and anxious. The two figures often appear unclear whether they have agency over events, confused as to their purpose, and not even sure which of them is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern. Waiting in an obscure ante-room in the palace at Elsinore, they play word games to pass the time, worry about mortality, and react with concern to Hamlet’s theatrical soliloquies downstage, which to them look like the solitary ramblings of a bloodthirsty and deranged prince.
As they wait, and respond to incomprehensible instructions from various members of the royal household, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter the troop of players that Hamlet uses to expose his uncle Claudius’ guilt for murdering Hamlet’s father. This side of the narrative is obscure to Stoppard’s characters, who reflect that it was a bit insensitive to stage a play about an evil second husband to Claudius, who is “a second husband himself!” The lead player (Haig) demands that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern question their notions of theatricality and reality, and gives magnificent speeches about the nature of play-acting: “We’re actors… We pledged our identities, secure in the conventions of our trade; that someone would be watching. And then, gradually, no one was. We were caught, high and dry.”
This spring the Old Vic hosted Rosencrantz and Guildenstern for its fiftieth birthday and invited Daniel Radcliffe (Rosencrantz), Joshua McGuire (Guildenstern) and David Haig (The Player) to the party. With David Leveaux directing, an old hand at Stoppard, and Stoppard himself attending the rehearsals, this was always going to be excellent and, with a packed auditorium every night, the run was extended into early May.
Stoppard’s early plays have been criticised for being all mind, but the casting of this production softened the hard intellectual edges of Stoppard’s script. McGuire’s Guildenstern was self-reflective and clearly frustrated by the inexplicable phenomena the two characters are confronted with, and he delivered Stoppard’s fast paced intellectual humour with panache. Daniel Radcliffe was well cast as the slower Rosencrantz. Radcliffe’s poor projection and occasional fluffing of the jokes, while occasionally annoying, actually humanised his character and introduced a sweeter side to the play that crystallised in particular moments: Rosencrantz cheating at a coin game to help Guildenstern to win, and then, when caught out, saying “I only wanted to make you happy.”
The set is effective. Guildenstern and Rosencrantsz spend the majority of their time on the proscenium of the stage, which is pushed out into the auditorium, breaking the fourth wall. Behind them a curtain is pre-emptively pulled across to indicate the boundaries of their ante-chamber in Elsinore, with the curtain also suggesting that the two characters are back-stage awaiting their cues to enter the action of Hamlet presumably going on out of sight and without their knowledge.
This metatheatricality is common to many of Stoppard’s plays, but in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead metatheatre is used in a particularly dark way. The play unfolds in the permanent shadow and expectation of death, that of the title characters and most of the others. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern will die, and their worried incomprehension as the events of Hamlet’s life determine the course of their existence, is simultaneously both an analogue for the drama and confusion of living and a playful exploration of what it means to be a minor character in a major play. Seeing these off-stage characters on the stage, represented in their downtime between the main events of Hamlet, the audience is asked to question what sort of existence these characters have when they are not caught up in the events which gave them meaning in Shakespeare’s play. Stoppard suggests that the unstoppable momentum of Hamlet’s life denies Rosencrantz and Guildenstern the opportunity to discover any private, individual purpose. The humour latent in Rosencrantz’s determinist diagnosis towards the end of the play, “our mistake was getting on a boat”, is that their mistake – if they even possess the agency to make such a thing – occurs much earlier than that, and continues to be made throughout the play.
The play toys with the idea of fate and intentionality. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are caught up in events beyond their comprehension or control, which depresses them. On a boat headed to England Rosencrantz threatens to jump over board: “that would put a spoke in their wheel.” But, when their mission is derailed by pirates who abduct Hamlet, who they have been charged to bring to England, the characters are unable to cope with being adrift (literally and figuratively) without a purpose. Having been ordered around throughout the play they are unable to comprehend existing without instructions. Without a goal, what are they and what on earth should they do? The player tries to comfort them with a line that neatly and humorously sums up the general chaos of life: “Pirates can happen to anyone.”
 Shusha Guppy, “Tom Stoppard, The Art of Theater No. 7”, The Paris Review Issue 109, Winter 1988. https://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2467/tom-stoppard-the-art-of-theater-no-7-tom-stoppard
 Maya Jaggi, “You can’t help being what you write”, The Guardian 6th September 2008. https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2008/sep/06/stoppard.theatre