Words, words. They’re all we have to go on”, captures the spirit of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, where dialogue presides in a plot founded on absurdity. A tangential interpretation of Hamlet, the characters’ roles in Shakespeare’s plot are inverted; the minor characters Rosencrantz (Michael Black) and Guildenstern (James Strahan) are elevated to take the centre stage, whilst the original leading roles are cast out of the spotlight.
The protagonists’ dialogues have therefore been imbued with complexity and wit, adding texture to characters that were otherwise blank canvases. These nuances lie within Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s lengthy monologues and short-fire exchanges. Despite being charged with philosophical jargon of syllogisms, hypotheses and conclusions, the dialogue is delivered by Black and Strahan with unimpeded finesse. The successful execution of these lines acts as an anchoring force on the audience, a life raft amongst the abstract, where identity, ideas and set are disconcertingly fluid.
Despite routine comparisons to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern could not succeed without contributions from the rest of the cast, who bring tragedy, comedy and even more confusion to the play. The assortment of supporting characters appear sporadically, with Hamlet, Ophelia, Claudius, Gertrude and Polonius appearing and disappearing at a moment’s notice. Louisa Doyle as The Player stood out amongst these iconic characters, with her confident and compelling portrayal of the play’s source of clarity and omniscience. The troop of tragedians she commanded also deserve a special mention, as the dumb show was a stand out moment in the play, causing the audience to laugh in their seats.
The simplicity and effectiveness of the humour certainly proves that, in some instances, actions do speak louder than words.
The thoroughness of director Finlay McAfee’s vision is evident when watching Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, suggesting that there is method to the madness. Nic Farr’s set design was especially effective. Her use of light bulbs suspended from the flies of the theatre were deeply successful in symbolising the characters’ epistemological reflections. Their soft glow at the beginning fades with the insight never procured. Later, the light was completely extinguished when questions about life, death, free will and fate were never answered.
Upon initial consideration, the two intervals may seem excessive in a play where so little occurs. However, they are justified considering the trajectory of the characters’ existential crises. Each third is so distinct in tone: transitioning from calculated coin-tossing, to pensive musing, to the chaotic and unexpected raid at the end, ensuring that a break in the drama is needed before setting up the subsequent action.
The dramatic conclusion, although not as nihilistic or bloody as Shakespeare’s tragedies, is still evocative, encouraging us to think further than the superficial events of the text, focusing on the play’s central question of the inevitability of death. Being able to take a gander through the world of Hamlet from the absurdist point of view is an illuminating experience for all.
Photo courtesy of the Edinburgh University Theatre Company