Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead
Shakespeare's minor characters make a big impact in Soulpepper's profoundly funny season opener
Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Joseph Ziegler
Hamlet, that most famous of Shakespearean tragedies, sets the scene for another play, Tom Stoppard's absurdist, existentialist tragicomedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, now on stage at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts.
First staged at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966, the story concerns the fate of Hamlet's childhood friends as they are summoned to the Danish court for a special assignment. The action of Stoppard's play takes place in the wings of Shakespeare's drama, with the major characters making brief appearances, acting out bits of classic scenes, while the two minor characters attempt to make sense of it all from backstage.
“Life is a gamble, at terrible odds. If it were a bet you wouldn’t take it.” This line from the play sums up one of its prominent themes: a lack of free will, or determinism. Act one opens with Rosencrantz (Ted Dykstra) and Guildenstern (Jordan Pettle) flipping coins, in an impossible game of heads and tails where every coin comes up heads. From here on the two protagonists leave everything to chance, with no idea who they are, where they came from or where they are going, they simply follow orders and hope for the best.
On the road to Elsinore they meet a Player (the marvelous Kenneth Welsh) and his promiscuous band of Tragedians (Oliver Dennis, Tim Ziegler, Daniel Williston and Peyson Rock), and their unlucky stage wench Alfred (Paolo Santalucia), who reappear later to perform The Murder of Gonzago in the Danish castle. Directed by Claudius (Diego Matamoros) and Gertrude (Nancy Palk), R&G set out on a mission to "glean" what afflicts the depressed Hamlet (Gregory Prest), bumping into other characters, Ophelia (Leah Doz) and Polonius (William Webster), along the way.
Eventually they find themselves on a boat to England where they are to deliver Hamlet to the king. Here, the protagonists experience genuine fear as the spectre of death follows them to their inevitable end.
Joseph Ziegler gets fine performances out of the ensemble, with Dykstra and Pettle steady at the helm. Both actors have mastered the playwright's delightful wordplay, at once hilarious and deeply pensive, while successfully portraying opposing sides of the same character. Welsh is equally strong as the knowledgable thespian, delivering some of the most memorable lines of the night.
Featuring a simple but effective set and splendid costumes by Dana Osborne, moody lighting by Kevin Lamotte and music and sound design by resident music director Mike Ross, Soulpepper's latest production is an exemplary work that makes you laugh as much as it makes you think. A fantastic start to the new season.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead runs until March 2 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts. Visit soulpepper.ca for more information and to buy tickets.