There is a fundamental flaw with Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead: It contains so many (…too many?) stunning one-liners - some profound, some hilarious and all eminently quotable, and you just want to (impossibly) remember them all....
Fortunately, I saw it about once a month around 1973, aged just 15, in a repertory season at the Young Vic just a few years after the theatre opened. Taken by a youth club leader (with whom I am still in touch) who drove us there pretty much weekly to see every play they had on offer… and of which this was my firm favourite.
I have been quoting from it ever since. Quite often when I want someone to be ready I will shout, “Get your skirt on Alfred!”
Such was the impression it made on my then new teenage-theatre-going-brain that I have spent the years since seeking out productions and getting myself generally ready for directing it at last with an incredibly gifted company and a like-minded co-director.
Of all the things to become an obsession for a 15-year-old girl a wordy, smart and frankly tricky play is not one that you might expect but I was able to put aside my other passions – Elton John, avoiding French homework, and the Vicar’s son. I bought a copy of the script, I read it, often, and I underlined all my favourite quotes. I wrote notes in the margins like ‘this is deep’ and so it became part of my teenage angst therapy.
And I did this without the rather intimate knowledge that I now have of Hamlet, which some might say is a prerequisite to understand and enjoy this play. Or is it?
So writing a blog about why I love it so much is really hard because I don’t really know - other than to say it moved me, entertained me, made me feel smart, made me laugh out loud , made me fall in love with theatre and how it can speak to all sorts of people about all sorts of things in all sorts of ways. So it’s about death maybe, chance definitely and friendship and confusion…in fact you don’t have to dig too deep to find the entire human condition in there somewhere.
But I can’t believe that that’s what attracted me to it.
I think I just like the fact that it’s about two people doing their best not knowing what the hell is going on, blagging it and hoping for the best. Aren’t we all? It’s about friends who have a lot in common but are fundamentally different in outlook. Aren’t we all?
Stoppard says it’s just about two minor characters from Hamlet and in a way I think we are all minor characters in Hamlet. Who are you? Today I am feeling a bit Poloniusy – full of excellent advice that nobody wants to hear. Maybe when I saw it in 1975 I thought of myself as Ophelia having cast the Vicar’s son as Hamlet. You probably think that my inner drama queen means that I could be any of the tragedians, other than the athletic ones!
And some days I am Guildenstern - overthinking everything, perhaps a bit grumpy with the way the world is treating me. Other times I am Rosencrantz – innocently sharing rather daft ideas, being generally confused and frustrating those nearest and dearest to me. Probably, right now I’m gravedigger number two.
So I guess that’s why I love it.
Because it taught me that good theatre has the capacity to show you every person, in every place and in any time sharing the same struggles, joys and experiences and probably getting themselves into a whole lot of trouble… And it’s hilarious.
Lesley Ford, August 2022