Stagestruck: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Alive! and Playing in Amherst – Times Two

“We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else.” That line, spoken by a traveling player in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, could well be the elevator pitch for Tom Stoppard’s audaciously meta-theatrical play. Because that’s what it is: a backstage tour of Hamlet conducted by the pair of pawns who are summoned by the king to spy out the cause of the prince’s lunacy.”

Here, the supernumeraries get the title roles while the Danish royal family take supporting parts, as Shakespeare’s interchangeable duo (even King Claudius can’t tell which is which) develop personalities of their own. True, they are still just as mystified as to their ultimate purpose (which provides a metaphysical framework for Stoppard’s linguistic and comedic capers) as they move toward the inevitable doom spoiler-alerted by the title while moving between Shakespeare’s scenes and Stoppard’s.

Because of the way it plays hide and seek with theatrical conventions, matches antic wit with contemplations of existence and mortality, and ingeniously illuminates its iconic forebear, R&G is one of my all-time favorite plays – as is the tragedy it parallels.

So it’s a pleasure to note that something I’ve long wished to see will be onstage this summer in Amherst: the Hampshire Shakespeare Company performing both plays in rotating repertory, with largely the same cast – a kind of summer-theater mini-series, as Hamlet, Claudius, Gertrude, Ophelia et al. guest-star in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s play, and vice versa.

The 28-year-old company performs at the UMass Renaissance Center on a plain outdoor platform nuzzling a wooded glade. Beginning on June 24th with Hamlet, alternating performances run Thursday-Sunday through August 5th.

Stage to Screen

As it happens, another Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is playing in Amherst this weekend. It’s part of the National Theatre’s NT Live stage-to-screen series, at the Amherst Cinema on Saturday June 3 at 12:30 p.m. This one is Hamlet-less, unless you want to consider it a tardy mate to the National’s production a couple of years ago starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

This one, performed at the Young Vic and staged in celebration of the play’s 50th anniversary, has an equally high-wattage star: Daniel Radcliffe. The young man who grew up as Harry Potter (he’s now 27) has lately tackled a variety of projects, from the weighty to the frivolous, aimed at expanding his range. His stage appearances include the scorching drama Equus, the mordant comedy The Cripple of Inishmaan and the song-and-dance show How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Here he’s Rosencrantz to Joshua McGuire’s Guildenstern – perhaps another attempt to downplay his unescapable celebrity. In Stoppard’s version, Rosencrantz is the hesitant, anxious foil to his more effusive pal. “I’m only good at support,” he insists. The London press has been all-but-unanimous in praise of David Leveaux’s production, calling the two leads “a perfectly blended comedy double act,” with Radcliffe giving “a lovely, confident performance [that is] a million miles from Harry Potter.”


Amherst Cinema’s NT Live season continues this summer with new revivals of two quite different classics. Coming on June 20 (with an encore on the 24th) is Edward Albee’s masterpiece, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. The ultimate marriage brawl, its depiction of a long night of liquor-fueled cruelty and recrimination is carried along by sophisticated repartee delivered with the kind of poisonous wit that shields an aching undercurrent. It stars Imelda Staunton in a role even more waspish than (speaking of Mr. Radcliffe) her turn as Professor Umbridge in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.

And on June 17 (encore July 8) there’s an athletic adaptation of Peter Pan. It’s the National’s latest entry in its holiday-time tradition of family-oriented entertainments that gave birth to War Horse. A co-production with Bristol Old Vic, which first “devised” this version in 2012, it’s staged with what an English critic called “an inventive playfulness and a visible, nothing-up-your-sleeve magic” in which the flying mechanisms are in full view onstage. It also features a female Captain Hook.

And speaking of cross-gender casting, on July 1st there’s an encore screening of the National’s Twelfth Night, with the astonishing Tamsin Greig as the pompous, lovestruck steward Malvolio, now Malvolia – a conceit that works perfectly, with or without the added scene in a drag club.

NT Live photos by Manual Harlan,
Johan Persson & Steve Tanner

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Chris Rohmann

Author: Chris Rohmann

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