Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is one of the greats. A feast of metatheatre and language, it is relentless in its absurdity and humour, and curls up at the edges to reveal a dark underbelly. This is Stoppard at his best, and in this production it’s Sydney Theatre Company at its best, too.
That includes the Sydney Theatre itself. Gabriela Tylesova’s design is arresting – one of the best uses of the theatre’s notoriously tricky space. A deeply raked stage, a series of tunnels into the wings through which everyone comes and goes (everyone, that is, except for our dear Ros and Guil), and an oppressive conical lighting device to shrink the space, it's a strong and unflinching design.
Everything else is spare, and it’s in this minimalism that the characters weave their web of language, of a quest to find order in chaos, or at least try and figure out what’s going on Elsinore and why, exactly, the leading characters – bit players in Shakespeare's Hamlet – were summoned to the castle in the first place.
Toby Schmitz is a masterful Guildenstern and Minchin very good as the more innocent Rosencrantz; their connection is a joy because it telegraphs effortlessness, the kind of in-grown comfort of sharing each other’s space, this impossible to separate duo. Schmitz seems born for Stoppard’s language; he’s always been an intelligent performer but this is another level, a kinship with the words on the page that becomes a singular experience of realism in a deeply absurd play – fittingly, as Guildenstern is the character that needs to find some kind of rational order in their chaos. Minchin is gentler in his approach, guilelessly funny, the other side of Schmitz’s more abrasive coin. Schmitz we’ll see soon in Belvoir’s Hamlet; Minchin we could do with seeing more in theatres, and let’s hope we do.
Ewen Leslie’s Player, the only character who speaks more than a few words other than the eponymous duo themselves, is incredible in his role as the breeze-shooting thespian fallen on hard times with a quietly threatening interior. Leslie more than holds his own with the force that is Minchin and Schmitz; in fact, when The Player is speaking it is the sole point of focus on stage. Leslie assumes just enough authority to convince us all he’s at least a little bit in on what’s behind the curtain because he lives that dual life of the actor; he never takes his costume off, he’s always in character, he knows the wheels have been set in motion and so he plays his part until it ends. It’s a role with many layers and Leslie burrows into each one with vigour, producing a performance that is surprisingly but so welcomingly nuanced.
In the background we have the actual action from Hamlet. Fragments of scenes occur; Gertrude (Heather Mitchell), Claudius (Christopher Stollery), Ophelia (Adele Querol) Polonius (John Gaden), all in stunning Elizabethan high-theatrical garb (again by Tylesova) flicker in and out of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s periphery, befuddling and perplexing them all the more with their verse and Shakespearean iambs – which leads to some fantastic physical comedy, in particular by Hamlet (Tim Walter), wonderfully executed.
Simon Phillips is the director at the helm of this sublime production, and he has created a wonderfully balanced show where worlds intrude upon other worlds and characters wander into themselves, shadows and others with sharp timing and great wit. Words tumble out of monologues and rapid exchanges with a sort of exquisite flair; it is a delight to hear these characters speak, even if it’s a bit like leaving with an ice-cream headache (a shock to the brain that will never stop you from devouring it all eagerly).
This production is a perfect storm of theatre as a result of good programming, good casting, good design, and good direction. So rarely do all forces converge to produce something this enjoyable, this kind of example of simply great theatre. Those who see it will consider themselves lucky.