05 December 2002

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern might have been better off dead

Two years ago, when I was intermittently working at the Canadian excavations at Stymphalos in Greece, I wound up attending a performance of Aristophanes' classic anti-war play, The Acharnians. Unfortunately, I hadn't actually read the play at that point, and it was in modern Greek -- or at least pronounced in the modern Greek fashion, so I understood nothing. Nor did my friends. Josh, Andrea, Lisa, Crystal, Dana, John, and several others including myself sat clustered together high up in the theatre at Epidavros, staring in bemusement, frequently gesturing in confusion, and laughing in the wrong parts. Afterwards, I commented that it was like watching a Monty Python sketch in a foreign language, if it had been directed by Salvador Dali. I'll tell you all about it some other time, if you're good.

Anyway, I never imagined that I would someday have the same experience when watching an English play.

Last night was extraordinary. It was beyond all my expectations. 'Theatre of the Absurd' indeed... you have no idea.

I mentioned yesterday that last year's play, A Bird in the Hand, was by all accounts abysmal. Among other oddities, it featured, I am told, one character who was unaccountably covered in glitter for the duration of the show. To this day, nobody knows why. Marlisa, who attended that show, was somewhat anxious that this year's display might not remotely rival that mess. She need not have worried. Brace yourselves . . .

Of the two main characters in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, Guildenstern tends to be the wordier, having longer speeches, questioning the meaning of things; Rosencratz, on the other hand, is simpler, earthier, more concerned with the here and now. This is not always the case, as at times the characters are virtually interchangeable, but it works as a general rule of thumb.

It was inconvenient then, that I could hardly understand a word Guildenstern said. He had an impenetrable Geordie accent, tended to splutter, and spoke incredibly fast. Now, I speak fast, as you know, but at least I make a brave effort to separate the words. Guildenstern made no such attempts, so that whenever he spoke, which was often, all that would be emitted were strange machine gun-like bursts of Geordie, loud and incomprehensible splutterings of northern saliva.

To give an example, take a look at the following passage, where coins have been flipped, turning up heads on eighty-nine occasions in a row. After the eighty-ninth flip, Guildenstern wonders how this could happen:
"List of possible explanations. One: I'm willing it. Inside where nothing shows, I am the essence of a man spinning double-headed coins, and betting against himself in private atonement for an unremembered past. Two: time has stopped dead, and the single experience of one coin being spun once has been repeated ninety-times. On the whole, doubtful. Three: divine intervention. Four: a spectacular vindication of the principle that each individual coin spun individually is as likely to come down heads as tails and therefore should cause no surprise each individual time it does."
Now, I count ninety-four words there. I may be off, slightly, but that's about right. Guess how many I could distinguish when they were (spl)uttered last night?


'Divine intervention.'

I make that less than 3 per cent of the whole thing. Granted, that was a particularly puzzling passage, but even so, I doubt he made it above a comprehensibility ratio of 15 per cent over the course of the play. What made this particularly bizarre was that the girl playing Rosencrantz was fine, or at any rate I could understand her. I don't ask for much really. So what would generally happen was that Guildenstern would splutter away for a minute or two, and the Rosencrantz would reply with a clear, pointed, one-liner. Than Guildenstern would go off again. . . with barely a word being distinguishable.

To say I was mystified would be putting it mildly. Marlisa constantly had to turn away from me, or to shield her eyes so that they did not inadvertently alight on my dumbfounded face. Every time Guildenstern spoke I leaned slightly forward; sometimes my eyes narrowed and my head tilted in a futile effort to catch some semblance of Guildenstern's meaning; other times my eyes simply widened, my jaw dropped, and my hands spread in a blatant state of hopeless perplexity. My mixture of horror and confusion had her on the edge of laughter for the duration of the play, and she constantly had to nudge me so I adopted a more seemly countenance.

Guildenstern, for the record, was played by the same guy who played the lead in a Bird in the Hand last year. Sadly, Marlisa can't remember how he sounded, but, I'm told, he was distinctive by having just one facial expression, a perpetual sneer of some sort. Shaw remarked at the interval that, although it sounded really nasty to say this, the guy playing Guildenstern had the same face as the guy who haunted her childhood nightmares.

A bit of a breather...
The interval was fun, it must be said. We resisted the temptation to run away - to be fair, I was enjoying the weirdness too much, and in any case, I don't think our warden would have been happy had all five of her postgrads in the audience all scarpered at half-time. She knew we were there. When we arrived, we were announced to the two wardens, who would then shake our hands... ' Miss Hubbard!.... Miss Cartwright!.... Miss Ross!.... Mr Daly!....and so forth.'

No, the interval was spent munching sandwiches and drinking wine, while laughing at the photos of the boys in the hallway - our brother hall, as you might expect, is an all-male hall. Aside from the fact that it appears that the boys must get through a vast quantity of hair gel - I felt decidedly undergroomed -- many of them have highly entertaining names. Mr Drinkall... Mr Drysdale... Mr Coxhead. Need I say more?

Before returning to the play, Shaw and I explained the plot of Hamlet, so that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead might be slightly more comprehensible to the others. In case you don't know, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are just about the two least significant characters in Hamlet, and R&GaD takes place in the margins of that play, with the action occasionally intersecting with episodes from the source play.

The explanation given by Shaw and me was quite entertaining, I think, and must have come across as something from 'The Reduced Shakespeare Company,' with each of us completing the other's sentences, adding in quirky references, surprising ourselves my how much we remembered, and being mutually nonchalant when our memories failed us. I'm not entirely sure that it helped the others, though.

Having resisted temptation...
The second half began with us trying to keep straight faces. Not a hope. The minute Guildenstern opened his mouth it was all I could do to stifle the paroxysms of laughter than threatened to overwhelm me. I was shaking with mirth, keeping my mouth shut the whole time, and occasionally failing to control the snorts from my nose. Jenny, two seats along, held her programme over her face to conceal the tears that were running down her cheeks. She had the added disadvantage of being able to see the guys working the lights constantly holding up cards with hastily scrawled words on them in a desperate attempt to prompt the leads.

Making our situation, and indeed, behaviour, worse, was the fact that the lads who'd been sitting in front of us during the first half had all done a runner, so that we were in plain sight of the cast. And we'd gone to so much trouble, sitting in the back row over at the edge.

(The back row is the only place to sit when you have a bad feeling about plays. Alison, Georgia, Claire, Daron, and I once saw a spectacularly bad version of King Oedipus in UCD, where we were all very grateful that we were seated well away from the stage. Especially when all five of us were quaking with silent laughter. I had to take my glasses off that time, so I couldn't see the stage. I'm not sure what caused me to crack that time... was it the dubious bandage Oedipus wore over his gouged-out eyes....or the rather busty messenger falling onto the stage.... or the shepherd with crutches and a broken leg?)

During the second half the American girl playing Hamlet was far more prominent that earlier on - Shaw reckoned she was drunk, since she was slurring so much - and indeed, at one point I heard what sounded like a beer can being dropped backstage, but I half-suspect that she'd been taking acting lessons from Guildenstern. Whenever she spoke it seemed as though the stage was being filled with a fine mist. There's a bit where Hamlet says that Rosencrantz is like a sponge 'that soaks up the King's countenance, his rewards, his authorities... when he needs what you have glean'd, it is but squeezing you and, sponge, you shall be dry again.' By the end of that I bet that poor Guildenstern was wishing for a sponge to mop the spittle off herself.

The Player King definitely had the privilege of creating the second half's most memorable moment, revealing himself on the ship to England by leaping up and declaring 'Ah Ha!' Not, in the traditional manner, I must point out. No. Think Alan Partridge.

As for the rest of the cast? 

The director played Polonius, and was clearly inspired by every Hammer Horror 'Igor' that has been committed to film... 

Ophelia and Horatio were played by the same person, who was fine in that small part (there are no small parts - only small actors - blahblahblah)...

Gertrude was nicely unobtrusive, a good thing compared to some of the others... 

And the King? Ah, Claudius was definitely a real find. This smiling damned villain was wan and insipid, almost zombified in appearance. His speech was a thin and reedy upper-class English accent, punctuated with countless pauses, each one located with a truly Shatnerian randomness.

I quite liked the guy playing Alfred, one of the tragedians... definitely the play's unsung hero.

I should stop now. Who am I to take the piss out of this? I'd never have the nerve to do it myself. Fair play to them for having the balls to do it.

(Except for Guildenstern, who has apparently been in thirty-five plays, and doesn't feel complete without a script on his desk. By this point he should have realised how crap he is. Plonker.)

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