HART HOUSE THEATRE GIVES A SNAPSHOT INTO THE COMICAL PHILOSOPHY OF HAMLET’S CHILDHOOD FRIENDS
Story by Meaghan Collins
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead aptly begins with the two namesake protagonists engaged in a series of coin tosses – 93 in total – to test the laws of probability. Those familiar with Shakespeare recognize the amusing and often times nonsensical characters as the childhood friends of Hamlet, appearing as minor characters in said play. Here, in the absurdist tragic comedy by British playwright Tom Stoppard, Rossencrantz and Guildenstern take the lead roles to entertain the audience with their philosophical musings.
Be warned, without prior knowledge of Hamlet, the plot is a little tricky to maneuver. A play within a play, the story follows Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they attempt to find their bearings, lost both existentially and geographically. While characters from Hamlet sweep by, the audience listens on to the pair’s comical banter as they tread an unpredictable path. In act three, the pair find themselves on a ship that has already set sail. The audience is led to assume that the two do not know why or how they got there, and in the beginning of the scene, they ponder over whether or not they are alive or not. The quick, comical wit that is delivered back and fourth between the two keeps the audience on their toes.
What is often referenced and most striking about this play is Stoppard’s clever script. In the Hart House production directed by Matthew Gorman, the actors do not fail to deliver. Jim Armstrong and Andrew Knowlton (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, respectively) do a fantastic job of portraying the puzzled pair and outdo each other with memorable monologues. Armstrong conveys Rosencrantz’ fear of death and mortality in the second act so well that it gave the audience chills. Benjamin Muir likewise does a brilliant job portraying Hamlet’s rapidly deteriorating sanity, with a smug flare of mischief and ostentatiousness.
Costume designer Ming Wong uses a historical mix bag of English Renaissance era and contemporary costumes to capture the dapper English man. Textures of tweed, corduroy and suede, to beautiful velvet jackets, adorn the mostly male cast. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern were of course not meant to be English, but Wong has referenced the Englishness of both Stoppard and Shakespeare in her adaptation.
Although the play is mostly a conversational piece between two people, the characters on stage often lack in movement, making it difficult for the audience to pay attention to the sometimes rather dry scenes. Without song or dance, the long scenes of complex discourse between the two actors may have benefited from a little more physical comedy or interaction.
Gorman’s production comes highly recommended, having ended with a standing ovation from the audience whom he had transfixed from beginning to end. Be sure to read up on your Hamlet, and maybe even dig up some Albert Camus or Jean-Paul Sartre before attending the play.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead plays from September 21 – October 6 at the Hart House Theatre from Wednesdays to Saturdays at 8pm, and a second slot at 2pm on the third Saturday.