Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arena Theatre, Shaftesbury Arts Centre and touring

TOM Stoppard wrote this play, about two minor characters in Hamlet, in 1966, when it premiered at the Edinburgh Fringe. We see the action of Hamlet happen around the two school-friends of the Danish prince as they make their way from court to a boat on the way to England. The title is a line from Hamlet, a simple report of what has happened to them after they are sent to England with the Prince, and also ends this play. Although the play is probably enjoyed more by people who know Hamlet well, I think it stands well alone, with the title characters seeming like a surreal comedy double act, full of games and wordplay.

Arena Theatre, based in Christchurch, Dorset, have been bringing top-class work to the local stage since 1983, and they are one of those companies that blurs the line between amateur and professional, giving opportunity to actors, directors and crew who have chosen not to make the stage their full-time profession. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern gives opportunity for different playing styles, from the formal representation of Shakespeare’s original lines, through caricature amongst the troupe of players, to the essentially natural playing of the two title characters, who ramble, slightly lost with the small amount of evidence from the source material, through the play.

These title roles have been played by male and female actors over the years, in this play and in Hamlet, sometimes both male or female, and sometimes, as tonight, one of each, and it really does not matter, as long as we completely believe that these two are friends, friends who spend a lot of time together, and who know each other so well that they have even forgotten which is which. Roseanna Bowen and Daniel Withey played the roles with absolute integrity, with seemingly genuine frustration when one did not understand the other, and from Stoppard’s clever opening device of an ongoing coin spinning game right to the final few words before the inevitable end, I completely believed in them as people, sharing in their part in the great tragedy. Roseanna brought a great vulnerability to her part, bringing the unknowing naivety written into it to life with a gentleness and a wonderfully expressive face. Daniel was exactly the worldy-wise character that Stoppard intends, even missing some of the insights that his friend comes up with.

Shakespearean roles are Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Polonius and Ophelia and all of these play out the lines from Shakespeare with good authenticity, particularly Matthew Miles Chambers as Hamlet and Simon Meredith as Claudius, as well one of the players. Topher Lynn, as the leader of the troupe of actors, simply called the Player by Stoppard, delivers some good overacting, as do his troupe, particularly Reg Beckley, who is also a lovely bumbling Polonius, but Lynn is also believable when having to move the plot along in parts written by Stoppard that are not part of Shakespeare’s original.

This was a lovely opportunity to see what is now surely a classic of British Theatre up close and personal on a local stage, tightly directed by Grae Westgate and performed to a standard equal to that of most professionals. It’s on a short tour, to Bournemouth, Lyme Regis and New Milton, but if you get a chance to see Arena Theatre in action anywhere, try to do so – whatever the material it is unlikely that you will be disappointed.


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