Testing the Stoppard Effect

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Theatre Royal Haymarket, 16 July 2011

The temptation was too much. Waiting in the foyer, I took a pound coin and flipped it into the air, caught it and slapped it down onto the back of my hand.

It came up heads. But I did not dare test the Stoppard Effect any further, remaining convinced on the scantest of evidence that the absurd world of this play could affect the wider area of the theatre where it was being staged.

The play is contrived so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are part of the play Hamlet yet also stand outside it. This duality in their nature was expressed in this production through their costumes, which consisted of doublet-style jacket tops combined with modern jeans.

The world of this play is an artificial one, but then so is that of any play.

This artificiality was established right at the start through the repeated coin tossing, with each flip turning up heads. This seeded the idea that events were proceeding along predestined tramlines. A Godot-style tree loomed over the two characters helping to establish the bleak territory into which the story would eventually move.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s “offstage” moments were interwoven with the world of Shakespeare’s Hamlet to create their own particular story.

It was like opening a copy of the play and seeing the pair spring out from the paper and tap dance on the pages.

But in fact, the play does not really show us characters from Hamlet stepping out from their play into a jocular fourth dimension created by Stoppard. The pair are more like fans of Shakespeare transported into the world of the play. They can be understood as a realisation of the fantasy in which admiration of plays like Hamlet extends into wanting to be a part of them.

The characters exhibit knowledge of the text and its cultural significance, for example by mentioning “That is the question” in their own lines. The modernity of their speech is also reflected in their contemporary references. These are not people from either Shakespeare’s era or the age of the Hamlet story.

They represent us being projected into the play Hamlet, rather than characters within the play being extracted from it, something which the jeans element in their costume also hinted at.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s relationship with the play Hamlet looked very similar to the way comedians Morecambe and Wise acted in the plays wot Ernie wrote, spending much time bantering about the absurdity of the exercise.

A very disorienting effect was created by the layers of theatricality at the heart of the piece. A debate between Rosencrantz, Guildenstern and the Player about the lack of realism in stage murders was followed by the Player being stabbed. This created the expectation that the murder was real, but the dagger was then shown to be a prop.

The combination of these different degrees of representation somehow made the stabbing of the Player more real than a straightforward stage killing, to the point that it almost felt like a real-life attack.

But the main effect of the play was to generate comedy. Nothing more so than seeing Rosencrantz and Guildenstern thinking of themselves as important figures and wondering why events had turned out so bad for them.

The play also provided the sheer subversive joy of having the pair talking over the top of the big soliloquy, effectively rendering it meaningless chatter not worthy of taking seriously.

Hamlet stood facing upstage and as he said the famous opening words, the pair could only comment that he was talking to himself. Guildenstern approached Hamlet from behind, who, lost in his musings, suddenly thrust his dagger over his back, forcing Guildenstern into retreat.

And so the two of them meandered on, finding their fates predicted for them in the full version of the Murder of Gonzago, shipped to England, discovering the letter amended by Hamlet ordering their execution and then disappearing offstage before the English ambassador brought the Danish court the news of their deaths.

Some in the audience found the whole experience disappointing. Those who came expecting uncomplicated farce ended up contesting the reality of the play’s subversive bleakness by laughing at anything they considered a sufficient trigger for mirth. This resulted in loud guffaws being produced in reaction to lines that were not particularly humorous. With this play, the more people laughed, the less likely it was that they understood what was happening.

At the interval a party of six in the seats directly in front of me left and did not return. This was their reaction to the play and was oddly also a neat demonstration of the freedom to exit the world of the play that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, on their inescapable path towards destruction, lacked and wished they possessed.

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