Witty words and postmodern pastiche fuse in Sydney Theatre Company’s latest existential offering.

Sydney Theatre, September 2, 2013

The warm sounds of the Beatles’ Two of Us greet my ears and Sydney Theatre Company’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead by Tom Stoppard is done. I turn to the seat next to me and ask, “How was that?” to a fellow concert-patron.

“Intense,” he replies.

First presented in 1966 at Edinburgh Fringe, this monumental and hugely successful play is a highly entertaining mind gym in which Stoppard uses a complex yet fluid dialogue between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – two minor characters from Shakespeare’s Hamlet – to effortlessly explore the nature of our elusive and all-too-temporal existence.

What is this play about? Existence itself. It’s a terrifying look at the fact that you and me and everything will one day simply not exist and what do all these words and actions and machinations matter in the meantime?

At least that’s what my university theatre society took it to mean when I played Guildenstern at Australian National University in 2001. I remember asking the director of that production (who has since written a PhD on Stoppard) what he thought the play was about: “Words”’ he said with a wink as he quoted from the play. “They’re all we’ve got to go on.”

No kidding. “Words, words, words,” as Hamlet intones. Those slippery fallible fish that we grasp at as we attempt to philosophize, express affection, or indeed, review a play. Phillips’ production embodies this when ending the play by gradually drowning the closing dialogue from Hamlet in the pulsing of Steve Francis’s eerie and exhilarating sound design and leaving your heart pounding in fear. When you think about it, and this play makes you, nothing really matters and you can’t really pin the truth down. It’s terrifying.

In his director’s notes Simon Phillips initially admonishes Stoppard for using others’ art to create his own before going on to catch the essence of this, “bravely despairing play”. The question, then, is did this production, for all its flawless design, stellar cast, expert comic timing and clever direction catch the essence of this truly absurdist tragicomedy and find the passion, the blood, sweat and tears to bravely ask that bravely despairing question: “Why are we even here at all?”

My answer? As the character of The Player from this play might shout: ‘Not enough blood! They’re all blood and don’t forget it! And ease up on the eye makeup Rosencrantz, you look too much like Tim Minchin.’

Refer a friend