ROSENCRANTZ AND GUILDENSTERN ARE DEAD by Tom Stoppard, directed by Joseph Ziegler, with Ted Dykstra, Jordan Pettle and Kenneth Welsh. Presented by Soulpepper at the Young Centre (50 Tank House). Previews begin tonight (Thursday, February 7), opens Wednesday (February 13) and runs to March 2. See soulpepper.ca for schedule. $22-$68. 416-866-8666.
The then-20-something Joseph Ziegler barely knew Hamlet when he saw an amateur production of Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead. He's never forgotten, though, how bowled over he was by the Shakespeare-inspired play that launched Tom Stoppard's career.
Stoppard's witty, playful script tells the story of Hamlet from the viewpoint of two of the Bard's minor characters, who are troubled not only by the action whirling around them - Hamlet and Ophelia are among the figures who appear briefly - but by questions about their own identity.
"Everything you have to know about Shakespeare's tragedy is contained in Stoppard's amazing play," says Ziegler, a founding member of Soulpepper who directs R&G, the company's season opener. "It's one of the funniest, most intriguing and deepest plays I've ever seen."
The central characters bear a strong resemblance to Waiting For Godot's Vladimir and Estragon. They have an impulse to act but no firm idea, spending most of their time playing games to fill the void.
"Though we could talk about philosophical concerns, at the heart of the play is its humour," says Ziegler, a fine actor (he won a Dora for his portrayal of Willy Loman in Death Of A Salesman) as well as director. "Part of the fun comes from the fact that we're watching people dressed in Elizabethan costumes, but they have a modern sensibility and talk as we do.
"The entertainment is also in Stoppard's irreverence about Shakespeare," he continues. "Maybe he thought Shakespeare wasn't giving Rosencrantz and Guildenstern their due. When they arrive at the Danish court, the queen, Gertrude, assumes they're good friends of her son's and asks them to find out why he's acting strangely. Yet Hamlet has nothing to say to them.
"They're left to ‘glean what afflicts him,' as Shakespeare says, and they spend a lot of time practising their gleaning techniques."
There's also some question, in their minds, of who they are. They have little memory of the past or of where they're going. And what's worse, maybe, is that not only is everyone else in the play confused about who's Guildenstern and who's Rosencrantz, but they're not always certain themselves.
"Is their identity given them by Shakespeare, or are they independent people, defining themselves? Not only do the two ask questions about such big topics as identity and death, but the audience also starts to wonder about such large concerns. Not every question is answered by the end of the play, which is true of any great piece of writing."