Those who hate Shakespeare’s most famous play will rejoice in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, two and a half hours dedicated to tearing up his two most pointless characters and their part in arguably his biggest plot hole. Equally, those who love a bit of Bard will be intrigued to see the story entirely from the perspective of its most peripheral partnership. Whichever you’ve come for, this production starring Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire in the title roles has plenty to satisfy people of both persuasions.
They shirk away from being interchangeable – a one-note joke that isn’t funny now and probably wasn’t funny in the 17th century either – and make each role quite distinct. Rosencrantz is definitely the dim one, but Radcliffe’s natural naivety and constant expression of awe, suits the role rather well. When he shouts “Fire! It’s alright, I’m demonstrating the misuse of free speech,” he’s the stage equivalent of an excitable puppy.
McGuire, on the other hand, is an extremely neurotic foil, reeling off philosophical quandaries with all the speed and skill of an elocution tutor reciting their favourite tongue twister. Together, they make a relatable double act that only serves to make the excerpts from Hamlet seem absurdly pretentious in comparison.
The standout of the night is David Haig as The Player, the leader of a travelling troupe of tragedians. Sadistic and over-sexed, he’s the production’s Captain Jack Sparrow, an effeminate, unpredictable whirlwind who lists all the ways his actors can pretend to die with a relish that wrings every drop of pathos out of his descriptions.
Their method for slitting throats is ‘disGUSTing’, the way they hang from a noose ‘obSCENE’. Dressed up like sad clowns and French mimes left out in the rain, when they’re not dry humping or fake-murdering, they’re tooting darkly comic cabaret numbers on clarinets and bassoons. It’s delightfully bizarre and reminds you that this isn’t a play to be taken too seriously at any time.
And it’s really all about those three central performances; the set consists of a series of cloudscapes, an old map on a curtain and some chairs you’d find at the back of a church hall. Marvellous use they make of them too, alternating between Danish court and cargo ship by adding an umbrella here or attaching a ruff there.
Coins are a recurring device, tossed between characters with a wilful expectation that the fates will eventually fix a game for them. It’s not even that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are particularly unlucky; they’re incidentals, they’re powerless, out of the loop and not even the heroes in their own story.
When their deaths are finally announced, it’s both inconsequential and devastating. As The Player says, “Pirates could happen to anyone,” and that’s the honest truth of it.