Launching Stoppard onto the theatrical world stage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead once hummed with promise and delight. Trevor Nunn’s rarefied production is a reverent affair which wears its intellect on its sleeve, no detraction there, but at times the sparkle and wit appears mere verbiage, and the elegant writing has, over the years and with repeated viewing, lost its light.
Shining brightly however, in the pairing of original History Boys Jamie Parker and Samuel Barnett, Nunn has scored a theatrical coup, their banter is effortless, their relationship forged deeply, peppered with affection and a harried familiarity. Parker is impressive as the saturnine Rosencrantz, all baritone and bluff, while Barnett snipes cuttingly as the more angular Guildenstern. They are present on stage almost throughout the piece, and never for one moment does it feel as if they have overstayed their welcome. Both explore the necessary pathos of their characters while never seeming to wallow in their uselessness. These are observers, never participants.
As The Player, Chris Andrew Mellon offers a darkly camp comic creation, intensely theatrical but as contrast he intelligently colours the camp with a deep-seated melancholy. A Pagliaccio Player, perhaps. Jack Hawkins gives a witty and rugged Hamlet, complementing beautifully the vacillating Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
secures Parker and Barnett’s places as among the strongest dramatic actors of their generation
Nunn’s direction is tight throughout, a confluent unification of the intimate and the epic. Here, his understanding of staging intimacy on the vast space of the Haymarket heightens the existential ponderings of the characters.
Simon Higlett’s set is beautifully muted and understated, seeming to overshadow the actors while never quite filling the space, while Tim Mitchell’s lighting design moves seamlessly from bold and audacious slashes of white to subtle and intimate burnishings.
The overall effect is polished, solid and controlled. The precision and detail can often seem distancing and at times it is laboured rather than light, but this is a masterly revival, with enough flair and polish to lift it from a too-reverent production, and if nothing else, secures Parker and Barnett’s places as among the strongest dramatic actors of their generation. The History Boys have grown into men.
**** (4 stars)
Runs until 20th August