The joke in “Hamlet” is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the two stooges sent to spy on the great Dane, are interchangeable — the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Elsinore. And so it usually is in Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.” But not this time. Director David Leveaux and actors Daniel Radcliffe and Joshua McGuire not only dramatize the differences between the characters, they lend the quick-fire quibbling and squabbling a hitherto little-seen melancholia.
To its advantage and disadvantage, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” is, in every sense, a young man’s play. That’s evident in the then-standard lack of interest in women’s roles, and still more so in the play’s hallmark, the dizzyingly competitive gamesmanship of the intellectual word-spinning between the title characters that bears the hallmarks of strikingly self-confident (relative) youth. The largely unknown Stoppard was 29 when the play caused a sensation at the Edinburgh Festival before opening in a National Theatre production in April 1967.
Stoppard was throwing caution to the winds and turning “Hamlet” inside-out, demoting the depressed prince into a supporting role and pushing the sidekicks center-stage. But while in 1967 this wholesale re-jigging of a classic text was daring, the fact that such writerly antics are now standard practice has lent recent productions a faded air. The last London revival (2011), starring ex-“History Boys” Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker directed by Trevor Nunn, underlined the games but found little gravitas. It also lumbered through a wearying two hours and 45 minutes.
Leveaux shaves fifteen minutes off that via a near ideal control of pace, most obviously in the scenes with the Players. The initial image of Sixties-era clown/mime make-up and manner threaten slavish devotion to period, but everything stays on the move, not least David Haig’s Player King. He enjoyably milks the role but only at dramatic peaks. The rest of the time, he’s very front foot.
That’s also true of the leads. Recognizing that the details of the verbal games they play are subsidiary to the act of repetitively playing them, he encourages Radcliffe and McGuire to whip things along to everyone’s advantage. Running comedy dialogue at what could be called “Aaron Sorkin speed” means audiences focus not on individual details but on the how and why of the games being played. With Leveaux’s actors pushed to the front of the fore-stage of Anna Fleischle’s deep, open set, audiences connect to the characters and lap up Stoppard’s ideas of the role of random chance, the presence of death and the search for meaning in life.
Indeed, rarely has the tone of the show borne so much resemblance to Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” a major influence on the play’s fundamental existentialism. Both feature a duo killing time as they wait for someone to arrive to give them purpose. There are also echoes of Beckett’s “Play,” his 1964 study of purgatory in which three characters struggling to find meaning to their lives are trapped in urns, similar to the three barrels on Fleischle’s set.
The casting is crucial to the production’s success. McGuire has a natural, unflagging buoyancy that nicely strengthens Guildenstern’s pragmatic sense of leadership, his smug sense of superiority and his ability to control mounting exasperation. This means Radcliffe has cunningly opted for the more contemplative, less showy role of Rosencrantz. In some of his post-Harry Potter stage roles, Radcliffe has sometimes shown audiences how hard he has worked. Here, he has an effortless stillness. Allowing Rosencrantz to appear dim but cheerful gives the character a winning haplessness. It is unexpectedly moving.
Their partnership, as surprising as it is effective, turns a 50th anniversary production into a revival of substance.