It was a cold November evening when I found myself seated expectantly for Core Theatre's delightful production of Tom Stoppard's 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead'. Staged in the Paragon area of Bath (a hidden gem in its own right) Core's production is the result of months of hard work by Director Andy Cork, the production team and the cast.
Pitched as an absurdist, existential tragicomedy, the play focuses upon the exploits of two minor characters from Shakespeare's renowned work Hamlet, and turns on its head all expectation of classical theatre. The performance was the first to have occurred in the chapel building and, with a spacious room and old pulpit transformed into a courtyard, house, boat and (oddly) an on-stage stage, the experience was one of the most visually rich which I have recently enjoyed. From moving my feet to allow a character space to die, to ruminating over mathematical probability, logical reasoning and the scientific method along with the main protagonists, you are truly kept on you on your toes physically, mentally and philosophically by this performance.
The leading "everyman" duo are intentionally deprived of extensive character formation - to the point of being almost indistinguishable as separate entities to the bemused audience. That said, as the act unfolds, it becomes clear that both men have specific character traits; Rozencrantz is decidedly the more easygoing of the two, and initially far less troubled by the implications of their constrained existence. The other, Guildenstern, suffers from almost crippling bouts of anxiety, rationality and passion, demonstrated as he grows increasingly frustrated by his inability to make sense of the world around him. Much to the frustration of the enraptured audience, they often seem to be floating on the edges of Hamlet's reality, occasionally within grasp of realising that they don't exist outside the parameters of Shakespeare's words and, therefore, constantly struggling to grasp the concept of life outside of their written characters which is evading them like a word on the tip of the tongue.
As an audience our classmate along the fantastical journey is Rosencrantz, played effortlessly by Ashley Shiers who manages to embody both the endearing naivety and determined positivity of a character in whom you cannot help but become emotionally invested. His initial obliviousness and confusion regarding the events unfolding around him mirror that of the audience's, and as he is dragged further into the quagmire of existential debate, so are we - permitted glimmers of understanding only as and when the script of Hamlet allows us to.
Thanks to a fantastic and energetic performance from Marc Bessant, Guildenstern's emotions are palpable; echoing the part within each of us that questions the meaning of life is, frustrated by our own inability to explain how they have come to be. Despite his often volatile musings, subtle gestures within the play show Guildenstern to be capable of compassion and sympathetic understanding - a trait which we often see directed towards his childhood friend and companion, Rosencrantz.
Special mention should also go to Christopher Norwood Greaves, whose performance as the mysterious Player bring a darker element to the play. Greaves' stage presence speaks for itself, and his masterful portrayal of the sibylline character is one truly to be marveled at.
Consequently, as Hamlet continues offstage, we are privy to an entirely fantastical world; the characters are still real but they are conscious of their in-universe imprisonment and, as such, make the audience almost uncomfortably aware that they're watching a very sentient fish try to escape its tank; helped along by a play within a play within an interpretation of the play. Have I confused you yet? Good - this is a narrative which has to be experienced to be truly appreciated.
Of course, the final extraction of everything Rosencrantz and Guildenstern teaches us is thus: even they, in their attempt to diverge from the theatrical confines of Hamlet's story, are simply characters in a play. Then again, aren't we all?
All profits from the production will go towards supporting The Building of Bath Collection.
Wednesday 27 to Saturday 30 November doors open 7pm for 7.30pm start. On Sunday 1 December, matinee only, doors open 2.30pm for 3pm start.
Tickets £10/£8 available from:
Bath Visitor Information Centre
Bath BA1 1LY
Tel: 01225 463362
Fax: 01225 310377