If you take a few minutes to read the potted bios of all those involved in this production you’ll find you are being entertained by an ensemble of very enthusiastic, mainly young, and mainly fresh graduates, several in the performing arts, and all committed to the theatre. And that exuberance comes through this production of the challenging play that they’ve taken on. Playwright Tom Stoppard doesn’t make it easy for anyone, in the complex script that he’s woven around the idea of two minor characters who don’t have to search for an author (why would you, after all, when you’d already been created by the best?), but are searching for meaning in their imaginary lives. And, in so doing, he has deliberately converted this very human quest into a witty two-dimensional play of and on words.
For which you do need to keep your wits about you, as the dialogue weaves extracts from Hamlet through discussions and discursions of matters philosophical, philological, semantic and grammatical. As well as highly comical. Stoppard assumes that the audience comes, at best, with the solid intellectual base of a classical education, and at the very least with a knowledge of Hamlet. Which made the question of one member of the audience to another at the interval of the performance that I attended all the more poignant, when she asked her neighbour :Are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern dead?”.
This, in the context of the play itself, is an understandable question. Since Matt Bell as the solemnly naïve Rosencrantz and Paul Fulwood as the larrikin Guildenstern (or vice versa, according to the program notes ….. is this some sort of written test?) raise the spectre of dead men walking as they manage to combine the existentialism of Waiting for Godot with the recurring events of Groundhog Day. And, after a slow start, they make a most engaging pair of characters, who gradually come into their own as they struggle with their place in the play in which they play such a minor role, in a way which gets you on side until finally you are feeling for them rather than laughing at them.
Other capable performances come from Arian King, the leader of the Tragedians (who are the players of the play within the play within the play), and after another slowish start Christian Wilmer who gets nicely deranged in his role as Hamlet. As for Jonathon Strugnell, who plays Polonius, it seems that the line in his bio of “finding something theatrical to throw himself at” (when he feels the acting fever), should be taken quite literally. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone being hurled around and dropped without apparent damage, from such high places as he was when a corpse in Hamlet’s hands.
Rebecka Collins is a winsome if somewhat bland Ophelia, and the overall youthfulness of the cast only becomes a problem in the more senior roles of Uncle Claudius and Mother Gertrude. Andrew Barnes and Angela Peters look too young to give these characters credibility, and are much more comfortable in their other guise as two of the Tragedians. At the same time, as one of the three costume makers for this production, Peters and her colleagues Brigitte Churchill and Anna Siddens share the credit for the timely atmosphere of the play with composer Christine Smale, against Anthony Dann’s minimalist sets which give the actors the space they need for swift switches between the various levels of action highlighted by Simon Hourigan.
Through which, by the end, director Melissa Maclean can be satisfied that she has attained her goal of winning some sympathy for two characters who, as she points out, are rarely grieved for in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. And in the vibrant atmosphere of the Nash Theatre, where the youthfulness of the performers is largely matched by that of the audience, it is good to see the revival of a play that doesn’t offer easy answers to the hard questions of life and death.