Stoppard. Beautifully wordy, clever, manipulator of language, artful existentialist. Stoppard. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. All of the above.
I saw the first preview at STC’s Sydney Theatre on Tuesday night and I was very glad I did. Normally first previews, that first desperate taste of an audience, are rocky affairs. But if Tuesday’s show, with few very minor, almost unnoticeable hiccups, is a sign of things to come, STC has a genuine hit on its hands with Simon Phillips' direction of Stoppard’s play.
Any director will tell you that if you’re working with good material, 70% of your success on stage will come down to casting and STC has got this one in the bag. Phillips' must be doing a happy dance at not only his leads but also with the strong supporting ensemble.
As part of Sydney’s 2013 Festival of Schmitz, Toby Schmitz gets to dabble in both perspectives of this story, as the lead in Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, produced by Belvoir later this year, and as Guildenstern in this play. I can’t help think it’s like sweeping the pool at the Oscars. Yet whilst some may bemoan the glut of Schmitz, you can’t deny how good he is in this role. Whilst Tim Minchin is also lovely to watch and the interplay between them emanates a joy and energy, Schmitz is completely convincing as Guildenstern, having poured himself into this role. Minchen just plays himself, very well.
But the real surprise for me was Ewen Leslie as The Player. Leslie’s broad acting range was fully realised in this production and I relished every moment he was on stage delivering his witty, downtrodden, hopeful, heroic yet dastardly gamut of emotions and skills. He made The Player sympathetic and sexy. Oh dear…I’ve got a Ewen Leslie crush and I’m not afraid to admit it.
The tight ensemble of players and court characters were the right blend of spectacle and Shakespeare. Phillips really has done a great job at finding a thousand little moments and turning them into a domino drop of deliciousness. The only question that was left hanging for me was that of the direction of Gertrude, as a brainless Elizabethan bird but I accept that the play lends itself to it completely and the issue is more mine in reconciling the treatment of female characters on stage.
Gabriela Tylesova’s design was one of the first times I have felt that the stage of the Sydney Theatre has been effectively utilised by a local production. The (incredibly expensive) hydraulic stage, the mechanical (almost Eisenstein-inspired) archways indicate all the paths and possibilities, entrances and exits that all lead back to the paralysing knowledge of life’s own existentialist dilemma, the mechanisations of life itself. Tylesova’s costumes probably cost more than the stage itself. There was enough leather on stage to start an S&M club and there’s some fancy finery there too. But it all suits perfectly and I can’t imagine a more appropriate expression of the characters and the weathering of their journey.
Sound designer Steve Francis has finally solved the acoustic hole of the Sydney Theatre by subtly amplifying the actors to hit those back walls and if you didn’t see the occasional strapped cord on the actor, you would never have known. Nick Schlieper’s lighting design also adds to the feeling of this world, ebbing away as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern struggle to find their ways out of the shadows or at times, try to hide in them.
This is a show I’d be happy to see again and I strongly suggest you avail yourself of seeing it.
Give in to the Schmitz Blitz.