Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Tom Stoppard’s famous absurdist play asks big questions at Hart House Theatre

Written by Tom Stoppard
Directed by Matthew Gorman

Photo by Daniel DiMarco.

Absurdity, existentialism, and the well-known final scenes of Shakespeare’s Hamlet come together in Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, now on stage at the University of Toronto’s Hart House Theatre. The playwright breathes personality and wit into two minor characters from Shakespeare’s tragedy, who spend the majority of the production bantering back and forth, flipping coins, and being generally confused about the situations they find themselves in.

Rosencrantz (played by hilarious Jim Armstrong) is an animated, curious character in comparison to his more serious friend Guildenstern (Andrew Knowlton). who is constantly philosophical about the world around him. The audience learns that Claudius (Jesse Phillips) and his elegant wife Gertrude (Marlene Matos-Jones), the king and queen of Denmark, have sent for the two courtiers, and as they prepare for this meeting, they encounter the Tragedians (Ray Jacildo, Tom Beattie, Reg Matson, Leete Stetson, Madeleine Brown, and David Tripp), who perform a show for them based around violence and malice.

Once the traveling Tragedians depart, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are reunited with Hamlet (Benjamin Muir)—in a scene actually taken from the famous play—who is thrilled to see them but who seems as though he is entirely out of his senses, stumbling around the stage distractedly. When Claudius and Gertrude meet Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, they inform them that Hamlet is mad, which of course the audience has already gleaned from the prince’s behaviour.

One constant throughout the production is the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s names are often mixed up, even by Hamlet, who has known them for years, which fits well with the overall illogical themes of the play. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead truly comes alive in the final act, in which the two courtiers find themselves, Hamlet and the Tragedians, on a ship to England. The excitement that ensues in the final half hour is both engaging and well-performed.

Generally, this production is best enjoyed by an audience of quick thinkers, as the script is laden with existentialist themes and philosophical musings intended for Shakespeare aficionados. At two and a half hours, the seemingly endless illogical dialogue between the two courtiers is often difficult to follow and can become tiresome. However, the performances are excellent under director Matthew Gorman:  Armstrong and Knowlton stand out as the title characters, effortlessly delivering every line from the complicated script. The actors playing the Tragedians, specifically The Player (David Tripp) are reminiscent of cartoon characters, and their scenes are among the lighter moments of the production.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead runs until October 6th at Hart House Theatre. Visit for more information and to buy tickets.

Show Dates: 
Fri, 2012-09-21 - Sat, 2012-10-06
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