Stage Door Review 2024

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Thursday, April 4, 2024


by Tom Stoppard, directed by Jeremy Webb

Neptune Theatre, CAA Theatre, 651 Yonge St.

March 10-April 6, 2024

Guildenstern: “Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are... condemned”

David Mirvish’s presentation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has proven to be a great success. This, the Neptune Theatre production of Tom Stoppard’s 1966 play, has been extended twice before it even opened. The main reason for the show’s popularity is no doubt the presence in the title roles of Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd, who starred as Hobbits in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy (2001-03). Luckily, this is not a bit of stunt casting. Monaghan and Boyd are perfect in their roles and are the best Rosencrantz and Guildenstern you are ever likely to see.

As many will know, Stoppard’s comedy takes a look at Shakespeare’s Hamlet from the point of view of two of its minor characters. After Hamlet has put on his “antic disposition” to appear mad, Hamlet’s uncle Claudius, who killed Hamlet’s father and has married his mother, summons Hamlet’s old school friends from Wittenberg to visit Elsinore to try to discover what has caused Hamlet’s madness. Hamlet sees through Claudius’ plan and his former schoolmates’ friendliness at once and, when the chance arises, arranges for the pair’s demise.

All the various productions of R&G I have seen have emphasized the influence Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953) is on the action and on Stoppard’s characterization of the duo, sometimes, as in Soulpepper’s 2013 production, to the detriment of the play. Since Rosencrantz and Guildenstern do not appear in many scenes in Hamlet, Stoppard shows that the two courtiers are, like Beckett’s tramps, preoccupied with waiting.

Like Beckett’s two tramps, Stoppard's two courtiers have nothing to do but wait and pass the time in games and role-playing. Rosencrantz is like Beckett’s Estragon in that he is a bit dimmer than his comrade and is more interested in comfort than in duty. He repeats that he just wants to go home, but Guildenstern, just like Beckett’s Vladimir keeps reminding him that they have been “summoned” and therefore have a duty to perform. Guildenstern, like Vladimir, clutches onto that notion of being summoned as the key to giving a purpose to his and Rosencrantz’s existence.

Beckett’s tramps, however, are caught in a never-ending cycle of being told to wait to do something that they never have the chance to do. Stoppard’s courtiers, in contrast, are caught in the machinery of a plot – “Wheels have been set in motion” – over which they have no control and that ends in their deaths. Unlike Beckett’s tramps, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have several opportunities to sound Hamlet out. Unfortunately, they never discover anything useful.

Also, unlike Beckett’s tramps who live in a strangely unpopulated space, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern encounter not only all of Claudius’ court but the travelling players, who also find themselves having to wait to perform. The duo even has someone in the form of the leader of the troupe, the Player, with whom they can discuss their situation. Thus, whereas Beckett’s characters are caught in a cycle of repetition in which their lives gradually disimprove, Stoppard’s characters come to realize they are caught in a story not of their making and try to figure out whether it is chance or fate that has placed them in this situation.

One difficulty in staging Stoppard’s play is finding actors to play the title characters who can convince us that they have been friends so long that they thoroughly know each other’s habits. With Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd there is no such problem since the two have continued as best mates since they filmed Lord of the Rings. One of the joys of the present production is the interactions of the two which appear so natural that they feel unscripted.

Monaghan is very funny as Rosencrantz. Monaghan has Rosencrantz generally wear the face of an innocent. When Guildenstern or The Player are speaking, he has a wonderful way of letting an expression of incomprehension steal over his face until it becomes firmly established. Then suddenly a light bulb switches on inside his head and his whole face brightens when he belatedly understands what’s being said.

The humour Boyd brings out in Guildenstern is his propensity for philosophical rambling along the lines of medieval syllogisms which almost invariably tie him in knots. Boyd generally gives Guildenstern a melancholy look as if trying to understand the incomprehensible ways of the world has become too much for him. Boyd has him perk up while he is theorizing but by the end Boyd becomes crestfallen again as Guildenstern defeats himself yet again in his attempts at reasoning. Monaghan and Boyd have superb comic timing, shown often when they make opposing observations about the same speech or incident.

In R&G, Stoppard gives his hapless pair a character with whom they can have a rational discussion, a person quite unlike Pozzo, the petty tyrant in Waiting for Godot. This is a character known only as the Player, the leader of the troupe of travelling “tragedians” who have been summoned to try to shake Hamlet out of his melancholy. Michael Blake gives an impressive, deeply considered performance of this genial, multi-faceted figure, whom he reveals as the wisest character in the play and the one with the greatest life experience. Blake gives the Player a delightful manner of accepting the wicked world the way it is, without rancour, without fear – a complete contrast with way that Hamlet’s old schoolfriends approach life. At the same time, Blake also suggests that the Player has attained his present air of irony and nonchalance only after repeated struggles.

If there is a flaw with this production it lies in two errors made by director Jeremy Webb. He obviously loves the text but that is not a good reason to linger over its every phrase. Webb gives the show far too slow a pace. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s bantering should be like a ping-pong match, not like tossing a medicine ball back and forth. His second error is to encourage the actors playing characters in the excerpts from Shakespeare’s Hamlet to overplay their roles. Shakespeare’s characters should be entirely unaware that their tragedy has been reframed by Stoppard’s comedy. Pasha Ebrahimi plays Hamlet as someone in love with the sound of his own deep, resonant voice. Jonathan Ellul is a fussy, not very menacing Claudius, Raquel Duffy (replacing Erin Tancock the night I attended) has to struggle for dignity in the costume by Kaelen MacDonald that makes her look like a showgirl in the Old West.

Meanwhile, Walter Borden as Polonius and Mallory Amirault as Ophelia do manage not to exaggerate their characters. Drew Douris-O’Hara is amusing as Alfred (a named character not in Shakespeare) as an actor resigned to being a prostitute should the Player wish to attract customers.

On the whole, this production of R&G is the best of the three I have seen, largely because Dominic Monaghan and Billy Boyd so perfectly embody their characters and have such a natural rapport. Michael Blake is also the best Player I have seen, both because of the clarity of his speech and because of the complex personality he projects. The entire run of R&G may have sold out because people wanted to see Hobbits in on stage, but luckily, they will have also seen a great play with great acting from the three principal actors.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Dominic Monaghan as Rosencrantz and Billy Boyd as Guildenstern; the “tragedians” with Michael Blake as the Player and Dominic Monaghan as Rosencrantz. © 2024 Stoo Metz.

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