On the way home from a preview performance of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead at the Little Theatre, Big Friendly said, “The thing with Gilbert and Hammerstein is that it is very confusing if you don’t know Hamlet. You don’t know WHO Gilbert and Hammerstein are!” “That’s the whole point,” I wailed. “THEY don’t even know who they are.” But he is right. A working knowledge of Hamlet really helps. I am lucky. I played Ophelia in Hamlet at the Little Theatre in 1986. So I remember the story. And Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead was a staple of English and Drama 101.
Having said all that, this production of R&GAD is very very good. It stars Alan Committie as Rozencrantz, Rob Van Vuuren (of Big Friendly’s favourite The Most Amazing Show fame) as Guildenstern, Neville Thomas as The Player and a cast of drama school students as the rest. It is directed and designed by Chris Weare and assistant directed by Michael Kirch.
The evening starts with a 12.5 minute version of Hamlet, brilliantly played out in the parking lot, by the students. They look gorgeous and are well directed in this tight little paragraph of the play. It is certainly easier to understand than the full 3 hour version.
R&GAD is a hectic play. The whole thing about it is the agony of it. That’s what absurdism is all about. But it needs to be agony broken by relief and laughter and cleverness in order for an audience to survive it. This production really succeeds. The questions are all asked, and left unanswered, and repeated, and left unanswered. Death and tragedy and theatre and audiences are examined and questioned and trampled on and hurtled towards, as inexorably as R and G must move, without possibility of deviation, towards their death.
Rob and Alan are truly outstanding. They are a responsive, character-based team that are magnetic to watch. They are superbly directed to give performances that are so complex and nuanced that my head was virtually exploding full of meaning. That is a huge feat in an absurdist play, where, because of the repetition and hopelessness, if the performances falter for a moment you are lost to boredom.
Neville Thomas is a glorious Player, full of the pompous old-style declamation and ham, with big tummy and huge face-pulling to match. He is spot on. The drama students who take on the roles of the tragedians and all the Hamlet characters are without exception excellent. They are focused and tight, working hard and doing really good stuff. I thought I had a sense of them really rising to the occasion. Worth special mention are Peggy Tunyiswa’s Ophelia (wow, you’ve come a long way), Lauren Steyn’s Gertrude and Pakamisa Zwedala’s Polonius. Oh, now I want to name them all. They really were all great.
Putting on R&GAD is a huge challenge for a director and actors. The play itself asks the question, “What do audiences want?” and I’m not sure they want a brilliantly written, mostly philosophical excercise in the human condition. So, how do you put it on and take on those challenges? Get Alan Committie and Rob Van Vuuren. Get Chris Weare to direct (and design, which was very effective). The piece is relevant, haunting, funny and painful. Just what Stoppard intended, I bet.
Really very near the end Guildenstern says, “There must have been a moment at the beginning, where we could have said no.” And it is the saddest thing.
I’ve come to the end of another rave review. I can’t believe it myself. Things are looking good for Cape Town theatre today.
R&GAD officially opens on Tuesday 24 April and runs until 5 May. To book call 0214807129.