“Death is just an absence, and when the wind blows through it, it makes no sound.”

Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead explores the world of two of the smaller characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are courtiers and supposed friends of Hamlet’s, though they tremor in fear at the thought of speaking to him. The play premiered in 1966 in Scotland, almost 400 years after Hamlet. It focuses on the pair attempting to make sense of what they are meant to be doing at any given time. Realistically, they are directionless because their lives are meaningless when they aren’t in a scene of Hamlet’s life. They are left to question mortality, and life itself, as things seem to happen to them without their consent or control.

The play began with a silhouetted zombie-like dance number, which felt out of place. While it was visually exciting, it seemed like was choreography for choreography’s sake. Once the lights came up, we entered the world of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.

Males usually play both Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but director Tim Sneddon cast Giulia McGauran as Guildenstern opposite Sam Barson as Rosencrantz. Straight away, the stark height difference in these leads grabs audience attention, but the chemistry created by McGauran and Barson creates an ease found typically in siblings: there’s fondness, but they know exactly how to get on each other’s nerves. The tragedians played by Rohan Dimsey, Jesse Glass, Elly Patience, Bernie Walsh and Anouk Petit Dit De La Rouche added bard-like humour to support Rory Dempsey as The Player. Their performances are solely physical with no lines, but it was a challenge they rose to. Dempsey positively stole the stage when he was on, dressed in a sparkly red ringmaster’s costume. His boisterous and arrogant character is summed up by his line: “We’re actors – we’re the opposite of people”.

Ros and Guild 2

Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia and Polonius are minor roles played by David Efron, Bernadette Sheedy, Alix Roberts and William Balme respectively, who doubled as pirates in the second act. Their overacting helped to keep the play’s tone as light as it could be, particularly when covering darker themes. Tim Haughton as Hamlet embodied the self-important madness well, with a puffed out chest and air of arrogance about him.

The costumes of the whole cast were appropriate for their roles. The Hamlet characters wore regal attire, while the tragedians donned brightly coloured, mismatched, clown-like costumes. The simple op-shop styled clothing of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern made the characters more relatable, given they spent so much time on stage, but still different enough to show their characters.

While the director’s note mentions set designer Gareth Openshaw created the set as part of the choreography rather than a “static backdrop”, the length of the second set change stole from the momentum of the story. The set was minimalistic and changed by the cast rather than crew – an interesting choice given they were all in costume and some supposedly dead. If the pace of the second change could be increased and made to be choreographed like the first change, this concept of set as choreography would be clearer to the audience.

The wooden floor of the stage was used effectively throughout the piece for sound and set, but picked up the sound of movement very easily, and unfortunately the movement backstage could be heard occasionally. It never disrupted the play, but did distract from the dialogue, which can be difficult at times to understand. At times, the shouting or speaking too quickly meant the occasional word couldn’t be understood, but the overall concepts were clear enough.

Nicholas Roder’s original score for the piece enhanced the atmosphere of the story. In moments of high tension or epiphany, the music would heighten and add to the emotion be portrayed. Due to this, the moments of complete silence were particularly powerful. Rosencrantz played with this music at one point as a transition to the tragedians entering – a playful and clever addition.

Lighting designer William Penington aimed to emphasise the comic elements of the play with his lighting, making scenes abruptly change through lighting. However, the play is not comic enough for these sharp changes and easing out of darker lighting rather than the jarring snap into bright lights could help make the lighting more palatable. This being said, using the lighting to create new scenes due to the minimalistic set was brilliant and reduced the need for clunky set changes. The lighting of the final scene enhanced the emotion and acceptance the characters were feeling.

At times the concepts and language the actors were dealing with seemed to overpower their performances and left the audience trying to work out what was happening. Indeed, reading a synopsis afterwards helped make sense of the overall storyline.

Both McGauran and Barson should be congratulated on carrying the audience through this wordy and complicated play. McGauran has sophisticated concepts to communicate and does so in a seemingly effortless fashion through her tone and physicality. She’s brave and bold, so her vulnerability in the final moments was especially touching. These characters are intricate and focused intensely on existentialism, but McGauran and Barson managed to sustain a balanced injection of comedy. Barson’s comfort in performing is palpable as he delivers a strong and comedic portrayal of Rosencrantz.

A standout scene is Rosencrantz standing over a multitude of dead bodies, and attempting to comfort Guildenstern who is suffering an internal crisis. “Be happy! What’s the point in surviving if you’re not happy?” he declares. The visual contrast on stage of cast and set made for a particularly memorable moment.

While 8pm is usually an acceptable time to start, the play finished around 10:30pm, so moving the starting time half an hour earlier would be advised. The first act lasted for an hour and a half, and while there are limitations to where intervals can be, making the two acts closer in length could help concentration levels.

Opening to a humble crowd in a school theatre, OXAGEN Productions encapsulates the community theatre feeling. Friendly faces greet you on arrival and strike up conversation about their love of theatre. Based on audience reactions to certain cast, the audience is full of friends and family there for support.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a tight and passionate performance by OXAGEN – and a stellar effort for their first non-musical.

Performances are at the Wardell Theatre at Genazzano FCJ College, Kew on the following dates:

  • Nov 28th – 8pm
  • Nov 29th – 2pm & 5pm
  • Dec 3rd – 8pm
  • Dec 4th – 8pm
  • Dec 5th – 5pm & 8pm

Tickets are available through: http://www.trybooking.com.au/JHUN

Adults – $25, Concession – $20