Despite being a student at USyd for four and a half years, I have managed to avoid, forget or ignore any and every production put on by the University’s Dramatic Society.
But seeing SUDS’ production of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead on its opening night made me sorely regret my lack of engagement for the years prior. Directed by Jess Zlotnick, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead offers a simultaneously hilarious and macabre reflection on all things existential, including but not limited to free will, class, and morality. Similar to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and End Game, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead will titillate, frustrate, enamour and repulse you, revisiting you as your mind blanks in the shower or as you lay down to sleep. The show creeps in as an entertaining memory serving as a Trojan Horse for existential dread.
The play follows the final days of its eponymous protagonists, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by the charming Max Peacock and Dani Maher. Within Shakespeare’s Hamlet, these two background characters have less characterisation than the skull of Yorick. But Stoppard’s play, brought to life by Zlotnick’s direction, brings their lives into the foreground, following them as they navigate the perplexed plot of Hamlet, propelled by unknown forces. and drifting on the winds of chance.
Persistently hamstrung by indecision and existential angst, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern struggle to understand what they should be doing, only to immediately rebel against any action that may push them to progress in any meaningful way. Guildenstern is the intellectual of the pair, but utilises their intelligence only to justify their inaction or ignorance, constantly berating Rosencrantz, a naive and optimistic counterpart. Near the end of the second act, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern bemoan their stagnancy whilst attempting to confront Hamlet. Eventually, the pair become so frustrated that they rise to seek Hamlet out, only to rationalise their inaction as ‘the smartest thing to do in this situation’ and resume their original positions, relieved that they were not forced into action. Even when faced with death, the pair find it utterly impossible to move in any direction other than where they are fatalistically destined, with the pair walking knowingly to their deaths. The life and depth given to these originally paper-thin characters critiques our classical perception of fiction, pushes us to question the nature of a story and in turn, how we see the world.
The stage is utilised exceedingly well, effectively relegating Hamlet into a largely silent background while framing the confusion and disarray of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the foreground. The set itself is eclectic, shifting dramatically between acts. The final act is host to very impressive set pieces such as the bow of a ship and nautically themed trinkets and instruments. The cast put on an exemplary performance, with particular kudos owed to the bombastic and commanding Player, performed by Jasmine Cavanaugh. Dani Maher as the intellectualising yet incompetent Guildenstern, and Max Peacock as the naïve and frustratingly inactive Rosencrantz, were also impressive in their respective roles. While Zlotnick’s rendition of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead faithfully delivers the dizzying, Kafkaesque journey of Stoppard’s 20th century classic, she does little to alter the formula and does not seem to place her stamp onto the production. Nevertheless, SUDS Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead entertains and provokes just as much today as it ever has.
The show plays at the Cellar Theatre on August 8-11.