Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead

“Hamlet” never really interested me; like most of Shakespeare’s plays, it’s fun to see it live, and after seeing Sir Laurence Oliver’s “Hamlet,” I feel I finally ‘got’ it, but still, I remain unmoved.

While watching “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” written and directed by Tom Stoppard, and adapted from his 1966 play, I got the impression that he didn’t love “Hamlet” either. His play basically upends order and makes Hamlet a minor character in his own life story, but you can be the judge on that one.

Rosencrantz (Gary Oldman) and Guildenstern (Tim Roth) are minor characters in “Hamlet;” they’re Hamlet’s buddies who Claudius, Hamlet’s stepfather/uncle and Denmark’s new king, summons to help him find out what is wrong with his stepson/nephew. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern show up for a couple of scenes, are ineffective in finding the roots of Hamlet’s madness, and are dispatched offstage during the king’s failed attempt on Hamlet’s life.

But how do they feel about that? Here are two characters given no back-story by their creator, left to their own devices for much of the play, and are then thrown out when the action no longer needs them. “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” builds on the existential idea that we aren’t given a purpose, and will be born, suffer and die for no reason at all, and that it’s up to us to find our way in the world.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern have no memory before the summons, live in a world beyond psychics and logic, and have trouble getting others to tell them apart (with minor characters, does it matter?). But they go along with the story as much as they can, dropping into the action when needed and watching from the background when not.

“Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” raises some interesting questions about the debt an author (or creator?) owes his or her character (creation); how dare Shakespeare create these characters for no other reason than to kill them in end (how dare our creator not let us see the script in advance). They’re nothing outside of their deaths and in “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead,” our protagonists (at least Guildenstern) know it and try to thwart the will of the writer, but still fail in the end (don’t we all?).

This is fascinating stuff, but while I would love to see this on stage, the play just doesn’t translate to the screen. A heady and talky enterprise would lend itself well to the stage, where the tools and tricks of film just aren’t available, but in a medium based on visuals, endless philosophical dialogue becomes dull and ultimately pointless. The final montage, the deaths of the main (and minor) characters, is the one scene that lives up to the visual possibilities of film, but it comes too late to save the film. “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” is too much a part of the theatrical experience to make the cinematic leap; nothing specific dooms the film, except that the premise was flawed from the start. And that is the real shame.

 If you have a jones for Shakespeare movies, as mentioned above, Olivier’s “Hamlet” is a superb adaptation, although the oedipal interpretation does grate at times. For the tragedy lovers, Akira Kurosawa’s “Ran,” a retelling of ‘King Lear” set in 16th century feudal Japan, is another not to be missed. Lear’s daughters becomes sons, but the power and dread of Shakespeare’s end-of-the-world scenario, not to mention gorgeous cinematography and  powerhouse performances, is captured by a master at the end, and highest point, of his career. 

“Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead” (1990)

Written and Directed by Tom Stoppard

Starring: Gary Oldman (Rosencrantz)

Tim Roth (Guildenstern)