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Review - National Theatre Live: Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

Having thoroughly enjoyed National Theatre Live’s presentation of Hamlet, I leapt at the opportunity to see IFC Center’s encore broadcast of Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead, originally recorded live at the Old Vic. And, although any similarities between the two shows (beyond the overlapping text) are obviously unintentional, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern still makes for a fascinating companion piece. The minimalist production design, for example, stands in stark contrast to Hamlet’s elaborate sets; the vast emptiness of the enlarged stage not only emphasizes the insignificance of the dual protagonists, but also creates the illusion that they are bumbling around some backstage area, disconnected from the main action as they patiently (and, occasionally, not so patiently) await their cues.

Daniel Radcliffe’s vacant expressions and dimwitted reactions provide the perfect counterpoint to the more manic Joshua McGuire, who navigates Guildenstern’s (or is it Rosencrantz’s?) incessant, labyrinthine blathering with aplomb. The real treat, though, is David Haig’s Player—one almost suspects that there’s so little scenery because he devoured it all during a previous performance. But while Tom Stoppard’s legendarily witty dialogue and razor sharp wordplay carry the majority of the comedy (and, eventually, the drama), the actors find some of the biggest laughs in the quiet pauses between philosophical debates and metafictional commentary. I suppose that one advantage the theater will always hold over cinema is the ability to play directly to a live audience and tailor the performance to its immediate response—and McGuire, Radcliffe, and Haig certainly know how to work a crowd.

[Originally written May 1, 2017.]

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