“Incidents! All we get is incidents! Dear God, is it too much too expect a little sustained action?” So says a character late on in Tom Stoppard’s philosophical comedy and it’s one of many knowing winks that bait the audience with the fact that, well, so little really happens on stage here (and what does comes from Shakespeare). So are we left equally narked by Stoppard toying with us?

Not a bit of it. A sparkling revival to mark the play’s 50th anniversary doesn’t need the superstar casting of Daniel Radclffe as Rosencrantz to make it fizz – but if you come to see Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Moan, you’ll stay for a production that has plenty more up its Elizabethan sleeve.

Our heroes are a pair of minor characters from Hamlet, forever fretting about what roles they’re meant to fill in the greater scheme of things. Bewildered bystanders in their own story, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern play word-games, toss coins, trade one-liners and muse on death while occasionally (and hilariously) getting sucked into the tragic events unfolding in Elsinore.

It’s a delicious premise, summed up when the Player – leader of a raggedly menacing band of actor/musicians – says at one point, “We do on stage the things that are supposed to happen off. Which is a kind of integrity, if you look on every exit being an entrance somewhere else…” 

David Haig as The Player and The Players (photos by Manuel Harlan)

Obviously much of the focus here is on Radcliffe, and he makes a delightful, droll Rosencrantz, playing him as a sweet but slightly dozy sounding-board to the more uptight Guildenstern (Joshua McGuire). So sweet and clueless, in fact, that with his pursed mouth and raised eyebrows you could be reminded of Stan Laurel, with McGuire as the slightly tubbier Hardy side of the double act. 

But it’s David Haig as the wild-haired, scarlet-coated Player who very nearly runs away with the show by sheer force of comic energy. Haig is often cast as strait-laced types but as a flamboyantly disreputable ham, forever hinting that his troupe can offer other, er, services, he provides the perfect counterpoint to our uncertain heroes. 

Thanks to restrained but deft direction from David Leveaux, what can be a slightly maddening play, full of meta-moments and clever flourishes, becomes instead a sort of absurdist panto. In one scene, Polonius (William Chubb) delivers an aside to the audience during which Rosencrantz and Guildenstern notice us for the first time and gaze in wonder over a laughing auditorium. It’s an enjoyable moment in a night of theatrical sleight of hand that transcends the wattage of its star.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is at the Old Vic until 29 April


Book tickets for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead from Radio Times Box Office


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