Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are peripheral characters in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: They are summoned by Hamlet’s family, asked to keep an eye on him, and promptly manipulated into sentencing themselves to death. They have no arc, they have no interiority, in truth they are nothing more than a bell-weather for the type of Hamlet we are about to be shown. We laugh grimly at their deaths in misanthropic productions and grieve for them in those increasingly unfashionable productions where they are not so much spies as unwitting pawns.
All the way back in 1964, the then-promising young playwright Tom Stoppard produced a one-act sketch entitled Rosencrantz and Guildenstern meet King Leer. Well-received, this sketch was then expanded into a three-act play that debuted at the 1966 Edinburgh festival and rapidly ossified into something of a modern classic that managed to combine the existential absurdism of Samuel Beckett with an emerging postmodernism allowing the theatre to explore a Hamlet from a set of perspectives that were not available even to the most radical of theatre directors. Fast forward twenty odd years and it was agreed that a modern theatrical classic would probably make a brilliant film and so began a trek through development hell resulting in a hopelessly inexperienced Stoppard being forced to step behind the camera and begin his cinematic career with an adaptation of a fiendishly difficult work of theatrical metafiction. The result was a poorly-conceived, overly-theatrical, and hideously under-directed film but despite the myriad problems, you can still see the cleverness of the source material.
The film opens with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern riding through what appears to be a quarry, the pair are wrapped in so many layers of clothes that you cannot see their faces. The pair stop when one of them happens to notice a gold coin and begins playing heads-or-tails. Hours and hundreds of coin-flips later and the pair begin to realise that nothing is as it should be. Why can’t they remember anything that happened before the ride through the quarry? Why do the coins keep coming up heads? They’re not even sure which of them is Rosencrantz (Tim Roth) and which of them is Guildenstern (Gary Oldman). They just know that they have been summoned.
A partial explanation for this sense of unreality comes in the form of a company of actors who just happen to cross the pair’s path. Lead by a charismatic rogue known only as the Player (Richard Dreyfuss), the company is able to perform anything and become anyone as long as their performance ends in blood. The blood is non-negotiable.
From there, we are moved (as if by magic) to a decaying castle which is said to be in Denmark but could be almost anywhere. The décor and dress say renaissance, but why does everything look so tattered and old? Within minutes of their arrival, the pair are confronted by the King and Queen of Denmark who seem desperate for the pair to provide their opinions about Prince Hamlet (Iain Glen). The only problem is that neither Rosencrantz nor Guildenstern have any memory of meeting Hamlet and so they decide to use language as a means of extracting information from the prince and providing the King and Queen with answers.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead is all about the language and the film works best when Stoppard limits himself to setting a stage and allowing his actors to work with the material he provides. As one might expect of men playing famously under-written characters, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman struggle to infuse their roles with much humanity. Denied the chance to provide the kind of intense and psychological performances with which they have come to be associated, the two men move between straight-faced philosophical speculation and clownish gurning. In truth, this is not a play that rewards the creation of characters as the real star is the language itself and the way it zings back and forth between the characters before veering off and intersecting either with the text of the play or the ideas that happened to be obsessing Stoppard at the time. For example, a game of verbal cat and mouse played on a badminton court is used to explore the way that Hamlet refuses to answer questions and the Prince’s tactical use of language is then used to spawn discussions about the extent of the character’s madness. The language is brilliant, the interrogation of Hamlet is insightful, but it is never entirely clear whether this collection of scenes and literary jokes ever coheres into a proper film.
When performed live, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is all about speed of delivery and the way that a conversation about one thing can suddenly blossom into a scene from Hamlet dealing with something else entirely. Performed live, the play is immensely impressive if only because of the sheer speed and complexity of the material being delivered. Having been asked to adapt his play for the screen, Stoppard evidently decided that he should try to make the play seem more cinematic but rather than replacing elements of the play with elements that might work better in a cinematic format, Stoppard took the text of his play and inserted additional cinematic elements like elegant footage of the decaying castle and visual jokes about people being chased up and down corridors. While these elements are not in and of themselves terrible, they do serve to slacken the pace of the narrative and so undermine the sense of speed and flow that is evident even in the written form of the source material. The result is an adaptation that feels overly long and cluttered to the point where it calls into question the cleverness of the source material.
Deprived of the play’s linguistic pyrotechnics, audiences might well begin to wonder whether Stoppard actually has anything of substance to say about Hamlet. The philosophical tangents may seem clever and sound profound but they never seem to add up to anything more than sophomoric chin-stroking. Also problematic is the fact that while Stoppard erects an enormous chunk of metafictional architecture in order to examine the text of Shakespeare’s play from an entirely new perspective, his insights into the play seldom amount to little more than some trite observations about the text’s use of plays-within-plays and a rather flat-footed assertion of existential despair in the face of narrative over-determination. Uncharitably viewed, A-level students have been watching this film for years and so the film appears to have found its natural level. Charitably viewed, Stoppard’s ideas about the play are over fifty years old and their lack of freshness merely testifies to the fact that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead has changed the way in which people see Hamlet.
As this release coincides with the film’s 25th anniversary, the DVD comes with more than three hours of bonus material including some lengthy interviews with primary cast and director. Unfortunately, much of this dates from 2004 and so people who already own this film on DVD might want to think twice before shelling out for a new edition that boils down to an hour-long interview with a rather bored-looking Tom Stoppard.