“You should have caught us in better times. We were purists then.”
Has any playwright loved Shakespeare more than Tom Stoppard? Certainly few playwrights have had anywhere near as much fun with the Bard. Stoppard is an ongoing patron of the Shakespeare Schools Festival, contributed to the script of Shakespeare in Love, and has taken Shakespeare apart and put him back together more than once (Dogg’s Hamlet, Cahoot’s Macbeth, and of course Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead). Better yet, Stoppard’s love is an exuberant, passionate one, the kind of all-encompassing adoration that means he embraces Shakespeare’s work wholeheartedly. He refuses to avoid or sanitize the crass realities of Shakespeare’s time, but he just as stubbornly refuses to depict it as a parade of misery and regret. And he certainly doesn’t hesitate to criticize the plays themselves. There is joy in Stoppard’s work, even the deeply cynical R&G, and it’s a pleasure to experience that sheer love.
There’s an old theatrical adage that there are no small parts, only small actors; Rosencrantz… plays with this by taking two briefly viewed characters, bringing them to the fore, and shining a bright light on them. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (or, perhaps, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz; the men themselves aren’t entirely sure) are summoned by the king and queen to talk with their old friend Hamlet, and perhaps determine what’s afflicting his mind. We follow our hapless protagonists from their time on the road, to the palace, and finally onto the fateful boat (or ship, perhaps) where Hamlet dooms them to death. In between, there’s clever wordplay, both for its own sake and to comment on the original text of Hamlet (the passage where the two men pretend to ask Hamlet what’s afflicting him, only to realize that having his father murdered and mother married off to his uncle almost immediately is a fairly obvious cause, is a particular delight), conversations about probability and the meaning of life, and several encounters with the players who Hamlet uses to expose that very uncle-father’s duplicity.
There’s no romanticizing of the life of an actor in Stoppard’s script; the situation is frankly warts-and-all, and some productions take pains to emphasize the youth of the young man who is “raped” in the players’ production of The Rape of the Sabine Women (“or rather woman, or rather Alfred”). Hamlet itself is ugly at times, and Stoppard refuses to hide or obscure that ugliness.
But there’s also an absolute joy in how Stoppard digs into his source text. Much has been written about the clever narrative tricks of R&G, from its embrace of two almost-forgettable pawns in Shakespeare’s classic Hamlet to the way it treats their journey from summoning to death as a metaphor for theatre itself. There’s a drive and zeal in the work that’s impossible to resist, and the play is peppered with humor, from slapstick to dry wit.
I’ve seen the play staged twice, once by a professional company and once by an amateur group of young adult players, and watched the 1990 film adaptation with Tim Roth and Gary Oldman (which I still contend has the finest cinematic version of Hamlet himself). I’ve been lucky enough to have had a wonderful experience all three times. For an almost three-hour play, it zips along at a wild pace. The original script itself is well worth a read too. I’ve also seen Stoppard’s treatment of these characters influence other theatrical adaptations of Hamlet, bringing Stoppard’s treatment of the Bard full circle. Perhaps the biggest compliment possible for a man who has done so much to re-interpret and honor Shakespeare himself.