Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead: too clever for its own good

Sometimes being very, very clever simply isn’t quite enough. Tom Stoppard was undeniably terribly, dreadfully clever when he wrote Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, and it is most certainly a frightfully witty and clever play. But it’s also quite stultifyingly too full of its own cleverness.

This makes Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Stoppard’s 1969 outing all the harder to review. Tom Clarke and Freya Finch, in the interchangeable title roles, do an awful lot with what they have to work with, but they have their work cut out for them. They look for humanity in what is, ultimately, a hopelessly inhuman, alienating piece, Clarke’s manic energy, channeling Hugh Laurie’s Prince George of Blackadder brilliance to great effect, and Finch tempering this slightly manic turn with a knowing archness that tries, but ultimately inevitably fails, to find something to ground the play.

So reviewing R&CAD is a game of two halves. On the one hand, the performances are outstanding, Rima Te Wiata camping up her performance as The Player and Lisa Chappell staggering and almost slurring her words as Gertrude. On the other hand, the material they have to work with is monstrously pretentious; so far up itself is Stoppard’s play that even talent like this struggles to make something actually watchable out of it.

I realise that I’m in a minority. At a packed opening night, I believe I was the only person in the room not laughing like a fool as Joe Witkowski hammed his way through the Hamlet lines that pepper this play; it’s entirely possible that I simply was missing the point, that the jokes were going over my head, that I’m not quite clever enough for Stoppard. I’ll allow that possibility, but I do know that I was very much not in on the gag.

I’m clever enough, but I’m not, it appears, clever enough for R&CAD. No, bugger that. This is simply not a very good play, no matter what acting talent you throw at it. Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is dead.

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