A and A's Movie A Day

Watching movies until we run out.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

October 10, 2010

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

“Words, words, words!”

I wanted to be sure to watch this movie with our viewing of Hamlet fresh in my mind. Because this entire play takes place in and around the play of Hamlet. It’s Hamlet from a slightly different perspective. Or at least that is its jumping off point. In reality it uses the events of Hamlet to extemporise upon the nature of drama in general, the unchanging fate of the characters caught up in the play, and questions of mortality. My wife once performed in a production of this play (in a minor role) and I remember watching it many times before I ever saw this movie version of it. As such my thoughts on watching this often wandered to comparing the production Amanda was in with this version.

More than anything what strikes me when I watch this is the wit of the writing. Tom Stoppard has created something wonderful here. It’s not just the clever way that the action of the play weaves itself in and out of the action of Hamlet, exploring the adventures of two minor characters caught up in the tragedy, but the very word-play itself that is in large part what this piece is all about. At one point Rosencrantz and Guildenstern engage in a game of “questions” wherein they must reply to every question with another question. It is scored like a game of tennis and involves a very rapid patter between the two characters. The scene doesn’t really accomplish anything and doesn’t advance the plot in any way (although they do refer back to it after their first meeting with Hamlet and the “What a piece of work is a man” speech”) but it’s filled with cool and clever writing. Which pretty much sums up the whole play.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are characters only, but self-aware characters. As the action begins they have no recollection of who they are or where they come from. They are so interchangeable in the eyes of everybody else that even they are not sure which is Rosengrantz and which Guildenstern. As they play proceeds they must figure out for themselves what is going on based only on the limited interactions they have with other characters in the play. They know they have been sent for. They are commanded by the king to discover what is the cause of Hamlet’s lunacy. But they don’t really know who they are or how to accomplish their task.

Along the way they meet the players and their chief who understands much about playing a character in general and about just what is going on in Hamlet specifically. The player is well aware that he is in a play and just where the action is headed. At one point the players put on a pantomime version of Hamlet in its entirety, including the ignoble offstage deaths of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, but the pair somehow miss what’s being told to them.

There are a ton of really quick and difficult bits of dialog. Like the game of questions I mentioned earlier. Like the “I don’t get it” bit on the boat which is a kind of Abbot and Costello style joke about which of them has the letter for the English king. As such I think it had more impact live on stage than it does captured on film like this, but the film has a lot to offer as well.

Stoppard has the luxury here of directing the movie adaptation of his own play, so he’s able to play with the material quite a bit. He’s written the two leads with significantly different personalities with one being the more rational, aware and inquisitive one while the other is more instinctual and less burdened by thought. One of the fun things in the movie version is that the slightly dim one of the pair (call him Rosencrantz just for convenience sake) is throughout the movie making clever scientific observations and inventing things that are not part of the time period wherein the film is set. It’s a purely visual thing so it’s not part of the script, but it’s fun to watch. The other stand-out part of the play is the way that the players perform all their bits. They use a great deal of mime, pantomime and such which is beautiful, rich, and great fun to watch. Stand out bits for me are the puppet show they do within the play within a play, the ocean voyage which uses no props but has the actors themselves portray the ocean and ship, and the fantastic pantomime sword battle. There’s a real understanding and reverence for the power of acting which makes sense since the whole play is so much about what goes through the heads of characters when they are not on stage being performed by actors.

It’s a confusing concept, but makes sense in the world of the movie. Mostly thanks to the great performances of the real life actors involved. In the three leads we have the ever wonderful Gary Oldman as the slightly dim (but in the movie secretly brilliant) Rosencrantz, Tim Roth as Guildenstern (who is tasked with being the one of the pair that tries to understand what is going on and therefore is often in the lead, and Richard Dreyfuss as the omniscient Player who is the only person who truly understands what’s going on. All three of them are wonderful to watch and handle Stoppard’s difficult dialog as if it came naturally to them.

In addition to all this there is a very serious and well performed version of Hamlet going on around them. After just having watched the complete four hour Branagh version yesterday it was fun to see a different interpretation of the same work. Even though the play of Hamlet is scenery and sort of background for this play the version through which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern drift looks like quite a good one. Aside from the dialog of the Player and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern themselves all the rest of the dialog in the movie comes directly from the Shakespeare, so all the other actors are effectively performing Shakespeare in and around the rest of this play. It’s very cool to watch.

I also love the production design. Tom Stoppard gives the whole production a kind of other-worldly feel. The location where they shot is a drafty, decrepit castle, which fits the mood perfectly. Stoppard uses mist, steam, smoke and the vapor of the actor’s breath to make the whole thing seem slightly ghostly. Oh, and the movie is bookended by a Pink Floyd tune from Echoes which has always been one of their most haunting and strange albums.

If you enjoy a play that takes a great deal of joy in its own cleverness (full of sound and fury, signifying nothing) and you enjoy great acting and a strange haunted feel, then this is the movie for you. It is a tragedy in that its poor characters are doomed to play out an inevitable story that was written in full before they ever appeared on the screen, but it’s still a joy to watch.

October 10, 2010 - Posted by | daily reviews | , , , ,

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