Daniel Radcliffe could be traveling from one Harry Potter convention to the next and posing in round-rimmed glasses for fans of all ages, but instead he has taken on one unlikely assignment after another. Nor has he insisted on playing the most prominent role every time. For example, consider his work in David Leveaux’s revival, at London’s Old Vic, of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead — a month shy of 50 years since the play first opened at the National Theatre.
Radcliffe plays Rosencrantz and thus is billed first. But it’s stated in the course of the action that it’s Guildenstern, of Hamlet’s two school chums, who is “the dominant personality.” It’s tousled-haired Joshua McGuire who assumes that role: as his hard-rubber-ball bounces around the delicate set by Anna Fleischle, he often steals the scene.
Radcliffe and McGuire make a perfect couple of mid-IQ pals who aren’t quite up to the intricate court politics taking place in the world, largely unseen, of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. They’re Huck and Tom; they’re Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. And in their hanging around waiting, waiting for something to happen, they are indeed younger versions of Samuel Beckett’s famous pair, Vladimir and Estragon.
If McGuire has that dominant quality alluded to in Stoppard’s script, Radcliffe still has that puckish quality he’s always had — and it serves him well. He’s not only prepared to remain charismatic, if quiet, as McGuire’s energetics emerge, he’s equally content to watch while a third player, David Haig, arrives on the stage as Hamlet’s Player King — billed here, simply, as Player, a great ham ready to saw the air with his words and more than a tad menacing as Stoppard expands his part from what Shakespeare accorded him originally.
Garbed as a hot-to-trot clown by Fleischle and Loren Elstein, Haig holds back nothing. Very often he’s perched up on risers that offer him even more opportunities to go gleefully over the top. Not for nothing does Haig, at the curtain call, stand center stage between Radcliffe and McGuire. (Haig was recently on the big screen as the tolerant vocal coach in Florence Foster Jenkins.)
So Stoppard’s initial inspiration was to pluck Shakespeare’s secondary, goofus characters and put them front and center in a play. But much as Rosencrantz complains about people constantly identifying him with Guildenstern, the rest of the major dramatis personae are there, including Hamlet (Luke Mullins), Gertrude (Marianne Oldham), Claudius (Wil Johnson), Ophelia (Helena Wilson) and Polonius (William Chubb). They come and go and then come and go again, speaking Shakespeare’s high-flying iambic pentameter. At times, Hamlet is seen but not heard as the boys watch him from a distance. So much for “To be or not to be.” Take that, ye Bard.
But the Bard strikes back: Once Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show up at the command of Claudius and Gertrude, and once they’re sent, with Hamlet, back to England, they don’t reappear in the bloody final act of the play. That is to say they’re dead, as Stoppard’s title reminds us. So the playwright, for his second act, supplies the shipboard activity that Shakespeare doesn’t show. We learn that the two dupes have a letter for the English monarch indicating that Hamlet is to be murdered; among other things, it’s existence leads to an Abbott-and-Costello-ish routine in which they speculate on how they’re going to approach the King.
Yet even there Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead: Stoppard also has the Player and his motley instrument-playing company on board. Which means more of Haig doing what he does so lustily. Too much of a good thing? Possibly, yes. For today, just as back in the 1967 day, much of the proceedings are not only hard to follow but are distracting from the melancholy comedy-drama at the core of Stoppard’s conceit.
While one may review Radcliffe and McGuire and Haig, then, one finds oneself re-reviewing Stoppard. He was 28 at the time he wrote what is affectionately abbreviated to be R and G, and clever as his idea may be, he was mining the political and social strata much deeper. He intuited that the age in which he was living then, like the age we are living in now, had no heroes taking center stage. That was a time, and now is a time, when only mildly perplexed common men will crowd the spotlight.
Perhaps Stoppard was more prescient than we knew. For today, we know we have Rosencrantzes and Guildensterns and much, much worse in the political and media forefront. Whereas this play was surely welcomed as a literary frolic in 1967, its depiction of a hero in the background, talking to himself, is a lot more frightening today when a few too many Claudiuses are busy poisoning the rest of the play.