Friday night brought an unexpected treasure. Anthony and I went along to see the ‘amateur’ production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead in the Teacher’s Club on Parnell Square. Staged by CYEBO (I’m sworn to secrecy as to the meaning of the acronym), this was anything but amateur. Performances were solid, direction flawless and the production values were impeccable in a venue that could hold a maximum of 65 people (although I would imagine it to be pushing it to go above 40).
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is Tom Stoppard‘s ultimate play within a play. Originally staged by an amateur company in Scotland in 1966, it tells the existential tale of two minor players in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as they are ‘born’ and exist in the wings of the bard’s classic tragedy.
The pair appear at the beginning of the play and are engaged in a betting game of heads or tails. When we join them they have reached over 70 consecutive ‘heads’, a record. Immediately we hear musings on destiny, chance and the meaning of life.
Guildenstern: A weaker man might be moved to re-examine his faith, if in nothing else at least in the law of probability.
As the play slowly emerges, it is comedy, farce, drama, enlightened wit and tragedy rolled into one perfect script. We learn that neither character can recall where they are nor how they got there. In fact, they are even confused as to which of them is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern, alluding to their minor status in Shakespeare’s play. Occasionally they come close to discovering the truth behind their existence, that, to paraphrase Hamlet, their entire world is a stage and they are merely players, reciting their lines and then waiting in the ether for their next curtain call:
Guildenstern: All your life you live so close to truth, it becomes a permanent blur in the corner of your eye, and when something nudges it into outline it is like being ambushed by a grotesque. A man standing in his saddle in the half-lit half-alive dawn banged on the shutters and called two names. He was just a hat and the cloak levitating in the grey plume of his own breath, but when he called we came. That much is certain – we came.
They question their life and purpose constantly and come close to understanding that they are just bit parts while others around them are the leads:
Guildenstern: We only know what we’re told, and that’s little enough. And for all we know it isn’t even true.
But more often that not, this moment of revelation is lost in the confusion of their ramblings.
They are not completely alone throughout the play, however. They also share the ether with the Players, other bit-parters in Hamlet, and occasionally we meet Hamlet, Ophelia, Polonius, Gertrude and Claudius. In a wonderful twist Hamlet, arguably the literary world’s most famous anti-hero, plays a very small part in this play and is mostly used just to slowly bring Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to their inevitable fate.
I am a Hamlet-head – I love the play and the many different versions of it I have seen. I first read Stoppard’s play about 10 years ago and have read it a few times since, but I have been unable to see a production of it until now. Perhaps that gives CYEBO an unfair advantage, or perhaps it makes their job harder as I have built it up so much in my own imagination. Whatever the expectations, mine were overwhelmed by the production.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead relies to a large extent on the abilities of the two actors playing the title roles. They are on-stage for the entire play, and for much of the play, they are alone on-stage. In the hands of two unaccomplished actors, the long and winding monologues and dialogues would be difficult to follow and understand. In the hands of two lesser actors, the comic interplay between the two characters might be lost. In the hands of two amateurs, the final poetic moments might come as a relief rather than the thought provoking genius moment that it truly is. Thankfully, David Fleming as Rosencrantz and Finbarr Doyle as Guildenstern are no amateurs. The chemistry between the two actors to produce brilliantly funny moments following existential drama following debate about determinism versus free will following farcical games of questions – these two owned the stage. There was no discomfort, no nerves. On the contrary, Finbarr‘s frenetic Guildenstern was confident and gifted with his speech, while David showed a mastery of the performance, comfortable using every inch of the small stage to its fullest. They should both be very proud of their fine performances.
The supporting cast, with the exception of The Player, mainly provided light relief (in the same way that our two heroes provided the relief in Hamlet) and were excellent particularly when ‘rehearsing’ the play within a play, The Murder of Gonzago. The Player himself, played by Brian Quinn, who provides some of the answers Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are searching for, is superb. His control over his troupe is both hilarious and frightening in equal measure and his throwaway explanation of life as a player and as a character is surprisingly poignant:
We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people!
Aoife O’Donohue directed this play. I was lucky enough to chat and have a drink (or three) with Aoife after the show and she informed me that this is the first CYEBO production, her first production after DramSoc in UCD. It is very clear from the fine performances extracted and the excellent production values that she has a very strong future ahead. She is hoping to reprise the show at some point soon, so I will be looking out for it and everyone else should too.
Note: Photos courtesy of Aoife O’Donohue of CYEBO