by Tom Stoppard
Bard on the Beach
Vanier Park
June 30-September 23

In Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard gives Hamlet’s philosophical conundrum, “To be or not to be,” to two of Shakespeare’s lesser characters to solve.

Whereas noble Prince Hamlet’s death is a great tragedy, the demise of his fellow-students, who operate on the periphery of Hamlet, is worthy of just a throwaway line in Shakespeare’s play. Stoppard makes it the title of his brilliant existential comedy. The two little men, so insignificant they can’t even keep their own names straight, he puts centre stage, and turns Hamlet, Polonius, Gertrude, Claudius and Ophelia into minor characters.

A pastiche of theatrical influences, the play borrows freely from Arthur Miller’s argument that the common man is the modern tragic hero; from Beckett’s absurd Waiting for Godot, whose Didi and Gogo pass their time considering life and death while waiting for instructions; and Oscar Wilde, whose puns and witticisms are central to Stoppard’s literate style.

Stoppard also indirectly cites Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author on art and life, making the Player, another minor character in Shakespeare, a source of philosophical wisdom. It’s he who answers Guildenstern’s bewildered cry, “We don’t know how to act!” To live, R&G learn, is to act. The problem is to understand the nature of the script.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead turns Hamlet inside-out, so Bard on the Beach runs the two plays in rep, using the same set, cast and director (Dean Paul Gibson). And like Bard’s Hamlet, R&G is a triumph.

Haig Sutherland and Stephen Holmes play the anti-heroes to perfection. Sutherland’s Rosencrantz begins as the naïf, Holmes’ Guildenstern as the thoughtful logician. Later they reverse positions. Both run the gamut of confusion, frustration and despair. Very funny and sweetly pathetic, they hold the stage for long stretches, giving sharp clarity to Stoppard’s complex ideas and wordplay. When faced with the foot soldiers’ ethical dilemma of whether to obey orders and be complicit in the murder of their friend Hamlet, their anguish is profoundly moving.

Russell Roberts, sensational in Hamlet, delivers another remarkable performance as Stoppard’s Player: both dandy and pragmatic professional, he knows that “life is a gamble at terrible odds.” His troupe of motley actors (Kyle Rideout, Josue Laboucane, Michael Scholar, Jr., Torrance Coombs and Moya O’Connell, who doubles as Ophelia) provides wonderful entertainment, aided by Gibson’s imaginative direction and Nick Harrison’s clever combat choreography.

Poor acoustics make some of the dialogue hard to hear but it’s worth the extra concentration. This is great, intelligent theatre. Don’t miss it.

Jerry Wasserman

last updated: Monday, July 18, 2005 9:23 PM
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