Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s surreal comic masterpiece featuring ’two of the minor characters from Hamlet’ (as he describes them), presents some unique challenges to a director and a set designer.

How do you create a space that is outside of space and time whilst at the same time being a Shakespearean Elsinore, oh and a ship at sea on its way to England? How do you allow the comedy of the piece to take centre stage whilst evoking the unsettling existential question of the piece: whether to be or not to be is actually the question, and how we even know when we are not. Add to that three crates that take an impossible number of people, one that disappears, and the not inconsiderable challenge of making two characters actually vanish on stage…so Lesley Ford and I as co-directors did what all good directors do and handed an impossible task to someone else - enter Sarah Deboys: 

David Sear

Photo by Paul Ashley Photography

Surreal, clean and infinite: this was the brief for the set for ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’, which is coming to the ADC stage at the end of September. 

Surreal: nothing a Google search can’t sort. Clean: paint it all white, job’s a good’un. Infinite… on the ADC’s modest stage… hmm. We may have to require the audience’s imagination to do some work here… 

After a brief look at Dali’s melting clocks, and a foray into the world of Escher’s impossible staircases - at which point all the carpenters resigned - we have settled upon a sort of Magritte day slash night theme, with black and white chessboard colouring to represent the perilous nature of being a pawn in the Danish court, arches leading to different times and places, and a reversed perspective to build on the slightly disconcerting ‘nowhere’ feel suggested by the playwright. Add in a pinch or two of magic and an epic pirate battle and the play is sure to slay them in the aisles. Or some of them at least. 

Sarah Deboys

Sketch-up Design by Sarah Deboys

Costuming this play was always going to be a challenge.  Early on in the process it was decided not to use heavy, traditional Shakespearian costumes as it was felt that look did not reflect the vibe and setting envisaged.  There needed to be hints of Tudor dress; in some sections more than others.

You will see Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in modern ‘biker’ jackets that I reworked and I must say I enjoyed creating these immensely!

During one of my frequent fabric searches I came across a design that screamed ‘Hamlet’ at me.  The resulting doublet I think works well in the context and with the set.

The richer colours of the court bring a sharp contrast to the Tragedians.  The latter had several wacky interpretations along the way.  We initially went with a ‘circus slash new romantics’ look and hints of this still remain.  However, it became clear the original look had to be pared back to allow the troupe greater freedom of movement.

This show has been more challenging than some and will possibly remain a work in progress until opening night; we have the flexibility to add and remove as the whim takes us.  I do so hope you enjoy the final look.

Tracy James

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead takes to the ADC stage from Tuesday 27 September to Saturday 01 October 2022. Tickets are available now from £11 at