Is it better to employ a perspective that events in life are finding you? Or would you rather believe that you are in control of the action? Playwright Tom Stoppard says, well, at least the former is easier.
If anyone is able to draw parallels between William Shakespeare and Wes Craven, it's Stoppard. Sitting through Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for the first time was reminiscent of watching a horror flick where you're screaming at the protagonist, "the killer is right behind you!", but they just keep wandering in the direction of their own doom. Stoppard's approach to suspense, however, has far more substance, don't get me wrong. By the same token, it is also far less, intense. But if horror movies focused more on predetermination and the ironic result of each seemingly arbitrary decision made the protagonist, the industry might be on to something very, existential.
Stoppard's play drops you right into the plot of Hamlet, so for those who have read or seen Hamlet, you will pick up on more of the references, however it is not completely necessary to have seen Hamlet to enjoy the show. Luckily for you, Twin Cities theater-goers, Theater in the Round will also be producing Hamlet in April 2011.
The plot of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern unfolds much like you would expect for a B roll of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, or for you non-film geeks, like a string of supplemental deleted scenes. It is given that the plot of Hamlet is still occurring somewhere else off stage, but Stoppard chooses to highlight the actions of the minor characters while Hamlet is busy delivering his epic soliloquies.
The action begins with the summoning of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern to come to Denmark to help their childhood chum, Hamlet, who is in a state of melancholy after his father's death. From there, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern sit in an oblivious state while the play action continues on around them. R & G usually can't remember where they are going, why they are going there, and sometimes they can't even remember which is Rosencrantz and which is Guildenstern. Despite their constant struggle to clear up those details, the two piece together what little bits of information they can only to realize that they've been unknowingly doing what they were intended to do the whole time, which is to finish out the plot of Shakespeare's original play (for which Stoppard's title is a "dead" giveaway). But they do not achieve this feat without assistance. They are aided in their physical and existential journey by the band of Tragedian Players (also in Hamlet) and by the formerly principle characters including Hamlet himself, King Claudius, Queen Gertrude, Ophelia, and the whole gang, and of course, the messenger who delivers the fateful title line, Fortinbras.
Structurally, Stoppard also extends from Shakespeare’s play within a play device. In Hamlet, the tragedians are used to execute this tactic, but Stoppard uses the main plot of Hamlet to layer his philosophy. He juxtaposes the epitome of tragedy with the epitome of existentialism, and the equation somehow produces comedy. Let me not forget to mention this fact, that the play is very much an absurdist comedy.
Shakespeare’s Hamlet brings into question major issues like the importance of justice and conventional thoughts about right and wrong. Structurally, it also challenged the norm earlier established by Aristotle and used a new dramatic device that inserts a play within a play. Stoppard's rendition, however, trivializes these grave issues and implies that the fate of Hamlet was just that, fate. The play implies that the people are in fact pawns in a greater order, with no choices to make, just a list of actions to carry out. As the head player says to R&G in Act II, they are just following the script, which is already written. The players job are to die; that's what they do best. Thus, the play becomes about what Rosencrantz are supposed to do, not what they want to do. Or does it?
What the play lacks in intensity, it makes up for in intellect and charm. I recommend it.