What better vehicle for parody than Hamlet? I mean, the great Dane was such a whinger. Moping ’round the palace, giving his mum the guilts, just ’cause she landed another man, in his judgment a little too soon after his father’s death. Presumably, the bounced Czech, Tom Stoppard, Tomas Straussler, saw the absurdity in the play, alongside the dramatic strengths, for, early on in his career, he set about writing Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead.
Sydney Theatre Company, under the direction of Simon Phillips, now brings it to our attention once more, with two tempting stars, in Toby Schmitz and Tim Minchin, whose connection, it turns out, goes all the way back to uni. So what are the ingredients that make this the outstanding production it is? Well, we’ve accounted for a number of them already. But to begin at the beginning, we have, of course, the precocious genius of Stoppard. (I say precocious because R & G first emerged, albeit only as a one-act play at that stage, when Stoppard was just 27.)
No matter what any blinkered apologist might insist, it’s not without flaw. There are, for mine, some self-indulgences. Sometimes, scenes go on a little too long. But, viewed through the long lens, it’s jam-packed with goodies on which to feast one’s mind.
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Take the opening scene, for example. Here is Minchin, as Rosencrantz (or is it Guildenstern, for that confusion is a central conceit, of course), flipping coins and announcing, repeatedly, the thoroughly improbable, yet still and all inevitable, outcome: heads. Heads will roll, after all; his and his companion’s, just a they did in Hamlet. This is, Hamlet, after all, albeit through a different prism. A more consistently comic one, via the vessels of R & G. We have countless announcements of the unwavering metaphorical outcome before Guildenstern, without crystal-ball, foolishly suggests a wager. It seems interminable and we can’t help but wonder when the scene will end. It’s a tender torment emblematic of Stoppard’s Brobdingnagian skill.
In this one stuck groove, there is both comic and dramatic tension; a simultaneity that’s almost unbearable, as it dawns we’re privy to something the protagonists are not. Knowledge of their imminent deaths. The focus in any discussion about Stoppard seems always to be about his linguistic contrivances, his subjugation of English to suit his cunning ends; his enviable cleverness. There’s all that, of course. But even that, on its own.
No matter how lavishly or quickly the bread is buttered, it still needs meat in the middle. The protein comes in the form of making us care about these two characters from the very beginning. No matter what their flaws, or how frustrating their idiosyncrasies, cluelessness or reticence, they are likeable. They are human. A little like us. And we feel for them.
So, there is Stoppard. Then there is a rather remarkable set, part medieval, part Doctor Who, or something, designed by Gabriela Tylesova. Attractive? No. Not especially. In fact, there’s a kind of ugliness about it. But it’s functional and has the kind of wits that befits, including a troupe of player-pirates secreted in rum barrels on the steeply sloping deck of a ship. At times, it’s rather cold and corporate (a quality that has, from time to time, afflicted other STC sets), so I struck something of an irreconcilable love-hate relationship with it but, as I say, it is remarkable. Yes, that is partly euphemistic, but another way in which it’s meant positively is in its indistinct, nondescript aesthetic persona: a series of smoothly-fashioned archways, which might be doorways at Elsinore, or portals to the next world.
Tylesova’s costumes are superb: comical confections made with all manner of materials. While R & G are leather-clad Village People, or escapees from the set of Zorro, The Gay Blade, or something, Heather Mitchell’s Gertrude is the most overstated queen, with a ruffle that almost chokes her, a stack of pancakes for makeup and an explosion of who-know-what from the vicinity of her head. She looks like the portrait Dobell might’ve painted of Elizabeth 1.
Another delectable side dish is the musical wit of composer Alan John, who parodies the twee folkloric tunes of Hamlet‘s time with relish. And as the cart on which the players first appear reverses, we hear the familiar, monotonous, elongated beeps of a heavy vehicle reversing, played on recorder. Precious. Steve Francis has done an excellent job of sound design, too: everything comes across clearly.
And so to the cast. Schmitz is completely in his element, as if born to Stoppardian performance. He seems to draw on the classic canon of British comedic influences in his almost high-camp rendering of Guildenstern. It’s hard not to think of Blackadder or even the buffoonery of Basil Fawlty, for instance. In a nutshell, he’s brilliant. It might even be his best performance to date. Minchin’s approach is more understated and he doesn’t even really take on a British accent, let alone a Danish one, but the wisdom of casting decisions is evident from act one, scene one: Schmitz and Minchin work almost as well as Laurel and Hardy, or Abbott and Costello; counterpointing and complementing each other. It’s as if their off-stage history informs and enriches the relationship between the characters they play
While the promotional focus will be on titled pair, we can’t and mustn’t overlook Ewen Leslie, as The Player. He and his troupe of mincing, merry men mercilessly mock the pretensions and affectations of Shakespearean actors: in roughly equal parts clowns, acrobats, musicians and even rent boys. How little things change in the theatre. Paul Cutlan is wacky and wide-eyed. George Kemp as the put-upon Alfred, always the one to don a frock, is hilariously tentative. Angus King gives good goofy. Nicholas Papademetriou, Berryn Schwerdt and Aaron Tsindos complete a colourful, comical omnium gatherum.
And if you think that’s a crackerjack cast, consider John Gaden as silly-old-bugger Polonius; the aforementioned Heather Mitchell, a heady bricolage of haughty and hormonal; Adele Querol, an oblivious, innocent flower, her only concern that Hamlet be restored to a harmonious state; Christopher Stollery as a scheming, imperious Claudius; Tim Walter as a crafty, kooky and intimidating Hamlet.
Phillips can take the credit for inspired casting. And everything else. This production embodies everything theatre can and should be. The bar has been raised. The Czech bounces again.
The details: Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead plays the Sydney Theatre until September 14. Tickets on the company website.