REVIEW: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Irene Corbett

Photo credit: Andi Crown Photography

[Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead Funny]

A chime is heard and backstage is onstage. The curtain has revealed an actors’ waiting room. Three plywood walls, a roll of green screen, a ladder leading nowhere, and a healthy scattering of exit signs, ominously glowing without their promised exits. Scaffolding is visible and there is a lighting bar lying across the back of the stage. Set on stage, amongst the white plastic chairs, are the ever-present Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Supporting characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, but the stars of Tom Stoppard’s 1966 existential comedy. Director Benjamin Henson uses the pair to produce a highly polished and excruciatingly funny vision of the gaping abyss. 

The room shifts around them, the lighting bar ascends, exits appear in the plywood walls revealing the backstage of this backstage, drapes descend – yellow, then orange. Set and costumes cycle chromatically through a block colour palette of cream, green, yellow, orange, salmon, until the final blacks, Rachel Walker (Set Design) and Nic Smillie (Costume Design) gifting the show a surprisingly strong forward momentum in an incredibly clever manipulation of a world that has very little tangible progression. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are trapped in this single space, the illusion of this ‘onstage’ maintained by their inability to identify the correct exit to depart through. The audience, having completely bought into the conventions of onstage and offstage, erupted into laughter at our collective idiocy when the illusion is shattered by Hamlet, with Polonius’ body in tow, simply rounding the edge of the plywood set to avoid Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Their only respite is when Hamlet briefly drags them off into his ‘onstage’ world. 

The titular characters, played by Tom Clarke and Freya Finch (or was it Freya Finch and Tom Clarke?) make an excellent pair. Finch as Guildenstern grabs the show by the horns, delivering a deliciously paradoxical idiot genius, the metaphysical straight-man to Tom Clarke’s very endearing slow-witted Rosencrantz. They are packaged in cream schoolboys’ uniforms of shorts and blazers, accessorised with matching travel packs, big starchy Elizabethan ruffs, and these incredible chunky patent plastic shoes which deserve a special mention for their comical squeaking on demand.  

There is less of a fluctuating power dynamic between this Rosencrantz and Guildenstern than often portrayed, but the natural dynamism of Finch as leader and Clarke as best friend make it well worth sacrificing the complete interchangeability joke. Note must be made of Finch’s magnificent physical control – Finch’s ability to make any movement as fluid and natural as can be makes me question how marked the physical gags were. With actors this skilled as clowns, the self-awareness of the choreography seems to hamper the sublime talent of the pair. 

Their charm is only surpassed by Rima Te Wiata as The Player. It is a rare actor indeed that has the gift of supplying as much energy and intensity as the rest of the cast without any sensation of exertion. This is a master at work, Te Wiata possessing an unmatched serene grounded-ness in a role she could not have been better suited for. There is a bubbling delight to this performance of The Player, Te Wiata dancing through the lines with a laugh like that of an all-seeing god, a king of actors. I get the sense that of everyone on stage, The Player will go on without us. 

The Player’s troupe (Andrew Eddey, Mathew Moore, Grace Bentley-Tsibuah, with Robin Kelly spiriting around a piano accordion) essentially function as moving set pieces. They provide moments of great physical comedy but also some dissonant notes. The character of Alfred (convincingly portrayed by Andrew Eddey), the ‘boy’ who takes the female roles, is garbed in never much more than a loin cloth and heels. Alfred is played for laughs, frequently tossed around by a larger, heavily masculine player. The joke seemed to be at the expense of Alfred’s physical vulnerability and constant distress. I cannot help but wonder if the undertones of sexual abuse would have been met with as much laughter if the character had been played by a woman. 

Lisa Chappell, Simon Prast, Bruce Phillips, and Brynley Stent, (Gertrude, Claudius, Polonius, Ophelia, respectively) parade around in majestic tragedy with a surprise highlight coming from Joe Witkowski’s Hamlet –a total scene stealer. This 80s Tim Finn/Robert Smith ‘goth’, all black curls, heavy eyeliner, rouged lips and elastic knees, manages in his 15 or so lines to be so absurd and magnetic that in an ideal world we would get a follow up season of Shakespeare’s Hamlet

For a play that is essentially one long wait until the end ATC, have found the right director and the right cast to give it endless buoyancy and colour. 

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays at the ASB Waterfront theatre until the 26th of September. 

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