In 1999, Shakespeare in Love took home seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture. One of two writers responsible for that screenplay, Tom Stoppard, began his writing career with Shakespeare at the center of his work.
During a 1964 drama colloquium in West Berlin, Stoppard wrote several radio plays and a one-act farce in verse: “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the Court of King Lear,” an idea suggested by Stoppard’s agent. Later that year, Stoppard revamped the work, exchanging the verse for prose and incorporating text from Hamlet. The Royal Shakespeare Company optioned the work in 1965, but they did not produce the play. In 1966, the Oxford University Theatre premiered Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at The International Festival Fringe in Edinburgh, Scotland with a cast of eleven. Stoppard recalls: “opening night played for nearly an empty house...The play was done in a church hall on a flat floor so that people couldn’t actually see it. Student actors. The director didn’t show up.”
The play’s fortune improved soon after. In April of 1967, Derek Goldby directed an expanded version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the Old Vic in London, and in October 1967 the play opened in New York at the Alvin Theatre. The play received a Tony Award for Best New Play and won the New York Drama Critics award for Best Play. Since then, frequent performances have elevated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead to the status of modern classic as the flip side of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. R&G is the perfect addition for a repertory company doing Hamlet. The characters in the two plays are the same, they are trapped inside the same plot, and whenever the “major” characters from Shakespeare’s play are on the stage, they speak the same words.
Hamlet asks the question “To be or not to be?” and wonders if he should take “arms against a sea of troubles.” His fate seems in his hands, grounded in the Renaissance assumption of free will. Hamlet could act, if he wanted to act, whereas Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to have no choice.
Stoppard turns their questions into a catalog of modern dilemmas: who’s incharge? what are our choices? how can we control our destinies? is anybody listening? At first view, these do not seem to be the questions that confront Hamlet. By the end of Shakespeare’s play, however, Hamlet seems to have arrived at a place close to Stoppard’s Guildenstern and Rosencrantz – “there’s a divinity that shapes our ends, rough-hew them how we may.” While R&G addresses these sobering questions, Stoppard himself writes: “my intention was comic, and if the play had not turned out funny I would have considered that I had failed.”
ASC first mounted R&G as part of the 1995 Word to the Third Tour repertory which also included Hamlet and appeared at The International Fringe Festival in Edingurgh, Scotland with a cast of twelve. Our Hamlet and R&G used the same actors in the same roles, but each show was directed by a different director. In 2001, in the Odyssey Tour rep that opened the Blackfriars Playhouse, both shows were directed, designed, and rehearsed together to make the most out of the shared scenes and situations. Stoppard’s R&G that appeared at the Old Vic used many tricks of the modern theatre, including turning the lights off on the audience; but when the play first appeared on that small, flat church hall at the Edinburgh Festival, I’m sure Stoppard had very few technical elements available to him. Our production will milk Renaissance staging conditions (as all our shows do): we’ll leave the lights on the audience, our actors will be talking directly to the audience, and we will have to find new ways of pulling off moments in the script which call for the tricks of the modern theatre.
The joy of crafting both productions to be companion pieces is matched only by the excitement of knowing that both shows will travel the U.S., turning every venue into an Elizabethan environment before the plays and players take up residence in our own Blackfriars Playhouse for our 2009 Spring Season.
ASC Artistic Director, Co-founder
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