Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Thu 16th – Sat 18th October 2014


Simon Fearn

at 00:43 on 17th Oct 2014



It is a rare achievement for a night at the theatre to incorporate existential angst, slapstick humour and Brechtian experimentation, all immersed within baffling layers of meta-theatrical complexity. DUCT’s latest production seems to have done just that. Over the course of three hours in a tragically underpopulated theatre, we learn to love two irrelevant and interchangeable characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, accompanying them to their incidental end.

The play is essentially a two hander, relying almost entirely on the performance of its two leads: Hugh Train as a buffoonish Rosencratz and Jenny Walser as a paranoid Guildenstern. At first it seems a bridge too far. Contrary to the dramatic “Who’s there?” that launches an audience into Hamlet, Stoppard’s play opens with its two protagonists flipping coins. Alone on an empty stage and with their seemingly banal dialogue, there is a fine line between absurdism and tedium, not helped by the very occasional fumbled cue. But once the gears of this production gain momentum, the Train and Walser double act shines through, and an initially unresponsive audience were in fits of laughter.

Train is a comic genius, looking deliciously uncomfortable in his period costume and making full use of a preternaturally expressive face. By the second act, he couldn’t fail to be funny, and I don’t doubt that his futile attempts to lick his toe will remain a highlight of Durham student theatre. Walser’s characterisation could be considered more subtle; initially she seems solely to act as a foil to the comic excesses of Train’s Rosencratz. Nevertheless, her ‘sensible’ Guildenstern is behind the most beautiful lines of the play, and Stoppard’s poetry trips effortlessly off Walser’s tongue. As the play comes to a close her character is a deeply sympathetic figure, consumed by existential despair.

In the sparkle of the leads’ brilliance there are many other delights to behold. Modestly describing himself as an “inexperienced and often clueless director”, Dom Williams’s artistic vision hits all the right notes. The balance between tragedy and comedy is treaded with finesse; Williams never shies away from the difficult issues Stoppard’s deeply intelligent script raises, whilst also wholeheartedly embracing more ‘lowbrow’ comedy. He clearly delights in the self-conscious meta-theatricality of the piece- having Rosencratz nearly falling off the front of the stage in his attempt to try and escape his preordained fate- and the moment when the two protagonists confront their identically dressed and equally doomed meta-fictional counterparts in The Murder of Gonzago is deeply affecting. The third act is also particularly notable for its innovative use of lighting. The audience is just as confused as the characters’ when the action begins in total darkness, and the play’s finale is beautifully underplayed: the protagonists simply walk out of the spotlight to their deaths offstage.

The supporting cast offers relief from the cabin fever of Rosencratz and Guildenstern’s postmodern banter. Harvey Comerford gives an amusing parody of Hamlet’s self-indulgent brooding, whilst Tyler Rainford’s take on The Player is suitably unhinged. But the play is at its best when it was a double act, and the snippets of Shakespeare often felt awkward and half-hearted, despite the pleasure of seeing Train and Walser squirm when confronted with Claudius and the wayward Hamlet.

Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead isn’t perfect, but it’s certainly not far off. The slow start is rapidly forgiven as the student cast and production team handle difficult material with the ease of the virtuoso, delivering a truly fantastic evening’s entertainment. Satisfaction is guaranteed.


Margot Abbott

at 08:59 on 17th Oct 2014



An abstract play this was. Unpleasant it was not. Although a vague notion of the story of Hamlet is useful, it is far from necessary. The audience follow the ramblings of two slightly comic and unwitting characters caught in the peripheries of a larger more complex story. However, this play is not about Hamlet and very much focuses upon the chatter between the two protagonists, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Although perhaps at time a little laboured at times, as a whole the play ran smoothly, with a positive reaction from the crowd.

Both Hugh Train (Rosencrantz) and Jenny Walser (Guildenstern) managed to play their parts convincingly with just the right mixture of philosophical ramblings and comic relief. The use of different levels with the main characters, moving from standing to sitting, portrayed the forces of movement and passivity at work on the play. The movement of the actors on the stage also gave a sense of place, which was important, given the minimalist qualities of the set. However, this should not be viewed negatively, as the lack of set in certain areas lent itself in conveying the emptiness and uncertainty of the two protagonists.

It is also important to note the acting of the other players. Indeed, a special mention must go to Tyler Rainford (The Player) for his unhinged and exuberant performance. The rest of the Tragedians must also be mentioned for even though their words were few they were cause of a few laughs.

On the whole this was a solid and interesting performance. The nature of the play meant at time as an audience member meant you were uncertain where the play was heading. The cast, however, lead you along comfortably for most of the play. The juxtaposition of Shakespearean language and plainer English used by the more prominent characters did not always follow as well as other parts of the dialogue. Although the contrast was probably the effect being aimed for it was not to be as seamless as other parts of the performance.

The ultimate question though, is it worth to seeing?

Answer: Yes and you will feel a little more intellectual for doing so.


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