Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

The word games in Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead have a collegiate cheekiness. The Czech-born British playwright was only in his twenties when he wrote R&G in 1964. In making Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – two minor characters in Hamlet – the center of a play about the tricks of fate, Stoppard mixed the poetic melodrama of Shakespeare with the doom-laden minimalism of Samuel Beckett and topped it with the slapstick of the Marx Brothers.

R&G won just about every theater award and made Stoppard's reputation – further enhanced by Travesties, Jumpers and The Real Thing. The movie version that we've lucked into at last, with Stoppard in a striking directing debut, is pure pleasure. Stoppard has put a spin on the action and made textual revisions with no loss in dramatic or linguistic power.

British actors Gary Oldman (State of Grace) and Tim Roth (Vincent & Theo) are remarkably fine in the title roles as Hamlet's two old school friends. They have been called to Elsinore by the young prince's mother, Queen Gertrude (Joanna Miles), and his stepfather, King Claudius (Donald Sumpter), to learn what's making Hamlet (a superb Iain Glen) so melancholy. Though they keep picking up clues from the snatches of Shakespeare's dialogue incorporated in the play, the bewildered pair never can deduce the full import of what's going on. Coming up in back of Polonius (Ian Richardson), who is eavesdropping behind the curtain in Gertrude's bedchamber, the two scare the old man, unintentionally causing his death. Stoppard delights in such knavish tinkering with the classics. The film is extravagantly, mercilessly funny – never more so than in the rapid-fire verbal tennis match between the two protagonists.

But unlike Hamlet or Shakespeare, Stoppard shows sympathy for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Even after a group of traveling actors led by the Player – an incisively overripe Richard Dreyfuss – puts on a show that foreshadows their eventual death by hanging, the pair remain incapable of helping themselves. "Wheels have been set in motion, and they have their own pace, to which we are condemned," says Roth's Guildenstern, who fancies himself the smarter of the two. Oldman, who plays Rosencrantz with a clown's grace and a tragedian's passion, is never more touching than when searching his mind for a crucial thought. "Whatever became of the moment," he asks, "when one first knew about death?" In this thrilling one-of-a-kind film, Stoppard revivifies an art rusting unused in movies: bringing words to life.

From The Archives Issue 592: November 29, 1990