Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Posted on July 9, 2009

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Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

A meta-play within a meta-play, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is one of my all-time favourites. So the fact that this DVD comes with no added extras doesn’t really matter.

An exercise in cerebral homage, the play was once described as “an intellectual tennis game between playwright and audience, with Shakespeare’s original text as the net”. The original text is Hamlet but Stoppard is also heavily indebted to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and, to a lesser extent, TS Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. Obviously it helps a wee bit if you have at least a basic knowledge of these three works – especially Hamlet; having said that, however, it’s easy to enjoy the movie without any prior background. I saw it at the cinema on release in 1991 with a friend who knew nothing about Hamlet but who, nevertheless, loved the film. On the other hand, my mother, who majored in English Literature at uni and is familiar with all three source works, hated it. This may have something to do with the fact that, as an Absurdist play, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead makes for an un-cinematic film. But, like the films of Hal Hartley, this needn’t be a bad thing.

The movie, which Stoppard himself adapted and directed from his own play, tells the story of Hamlet through the eyes of two bit characters in Shakespeare’s version: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. In Shakespeare’s play, they’re plot devices. In Stoppard’s, obviously, they’re the title characters while the Hamlet figures become plot devices in a story about two men caught up in events they neither understand nor control – which is typical of Theatre Of The Absurd, by the way.

Not typical of Absurdist theatre, but in its own way absurd, is the fact that there are at least four levels of play at work – the one we are watching (okay, it’s a movie), the one it is based on (Hamlet), the players’ play within Hamlet and the players’ play within Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead. Further confusing the issue, the film ends at odds with the original; there is the suggestion that all the action we have just witnessed has taken place within the fictional confines of the players’ wagon, reinforcing the fact that it is all just a play.

Gary Oldman as Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern? True to Absurdist theatre, they have identity problems) is a delightful ingénu, who frequently, though unwittingly, re-enacts pivotal moments of scientific discovery, which Tim Roth’s Guildenstern (or is it Rosencrantz?) habitually ignores. It never ceases to amaze me that his post-Rosencrantz career saw Oldman typecast as the evil lunatic. It’s obvious from this role that his range is much broader.

It’s an equal wonder that Richard Dreyfuss wasn’t subsequently typecast in the same way as Oldman, given that he imbues the Player with a far more sinister edge than the character embodies in the play. There is a sense that he may indeed be driving the fate of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, which – as is apparent from the title – is not towards a happy ending.

Winner of the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion Award, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is a magnificent, timeless work of intellectual imagination that rewards with every viewing.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is available on DVD through Force Entertainment.

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Posted in: DVD / TV