Vibrant costuming, an enthusiastic cast and a large dose of enquiry were the highlights of the recent MUST presentation of Tom Stoppard’s existentialist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The play is a hilarious exploration of a land where questions come before answers, and nobody ever knows exactly what is going on. This inversion of question and answer is indicative of the absurdist nature of Stoppard’s work, and the more serious existential questions which underlie the bumbling misadventures and loss of identity that Rosencratz and Guildenstern endure.
Centred on the story of two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, much of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead involves scenes of existential inquiry between the dim-witted Rosencrantz, played by Nigel Langley, and the clear-headed Guildenstern, played by Liz Thiessen. Sharp casting of Langley and Thiessen by directors Tom Lawton and Jonathon Powell saw strong portrayals of these key characters; despite this, the synchronicity required of these contrasting characters in order to fully realise the themes of the piece was sometimes lacking. Extended dialogue scenes occasionally leant towards blandness.
The likeability of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, however, proved to be a strength in more eventful scenes, particularly those involving multiple characters. During the madness which was created, audiences were given a window into the absurdist confusion experienced by the two characters. The directors were effective in creating clearly outlined characters that were able to express contained chaos. Consistency of change was also a key performance aspect.
Minimalist set design and props were both an asset and a downfall for the piece. This minimalism acted as an effective balance to the more chaotic absurdist elements of the piece, but sometimes tended to leave performers with insufficient physical aid to adeptly construct the world of the play. Conversely, vivid use of makeup and costuming amongst members of the theatre troupe created a visual representation of the obscene, and astutely painted the players as macabre, wandering outliers. The energy of the troupe was uplifting and a highlight of the performance, in particular the comic irreverence of the lead player, performed by Hannah Bullen.
This interpretation of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was successful in engaging the audience in the misadventure of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and exploring their inner thought processes. Absurdism was neatly elicited through character performance and the alternation between moments of high energy and pauses. Consequently, audiences were led to reflect on highly philosophical questions about the nature and purpose of life in the irreverent way which Stoppard intended.