There’s a hum of excitement as the audience take their seats awaiting the Armchair Theatre Company’s production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencratz and Guildenstern are Dead. The marketing for this show has been superb, with beautiful posters which seem to have been all over Oxford for the past few weeks. Hence, I came with high expectations. Unfortunately, I feel like this production has bitten off more than it can chew.
The play is an inverse look at Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, following the messengers Rosencratz and Guildenstern, (childhood friends of Hamlet) who appear on stage in this version whenever, in the original, they’re off. Stoppard focuses on their relationship and their philosophising on the subjects of death and probability. They’re on stage constantly and have a large amount of dialogue to get through. Cassian Bilton (playing Rosencratz) oozes self-confidence and effortlessly eases the audience through the long monologues. His partner, Ieuan Perkins (as Guildenstern) also rolls through the quick script, constantly changing his tone and mannerisms to avoid monotony. They are quick and comic, lightly moving across the stage and enjoying the flexibility of their characters.
Now my praise begins to run a bit thin. The group of players, led by ‘The Player’ (Chloe Wall) added little to the action whilst on stage, instead creating a kind of awkward tension. This larger group could have been used to bring more life and energy to the stage, to break up the wordy dialogue and stop the scenes from dragging. Instead they are often placed limp at different intervals with little characterisation or purpose. I understood that they were supposed to be beaten down by ‘life’ but to me, they simply looked bored.
The set was bleak, with wooden floorboards roughly nailed together and a white cloth backdrop, presumably to draw the attention to the speech, however, this was a bit lost on the audience as much of this was often mumbled, which is the antithesis of Stoppard’s distinctive verbosity. The lighting similarly seemed to add little, which with some questionable blocking and directional decisions, the overall production seemed to undermine the great performances by Bilton and Perkins.
Maybe I’m being overly critical, but I got the feeling that the cast had a kind of suppressed energy and potential they weren’t tapping into, perhaps the result of first night nerves. Stoppard’s writing is brilliant but undoubtedly hard to follow, with existentialist messages and quick-fire conversation, so you really need a solid and clear delivery from the cast to get some of the subtler comedy across and make it an easier ride for the audience. It’s a very hard job and this production unfortunately fell short of it, creating something intellectually taxing but not instantaneously gratifying. I came away feeling indifferent and as if something had gone over my head. It’s an interesting piece of theatre which a philosophising thespian would probably get much more out of, than myself.