“A self-aware performance of a self-aware play”

If you don’t think a play could remain charmingly funny from beginning to end and yet movingly portray the cruelty of fate and death, then Durham University Classical Theatre can prove you wrong. With a minimalist set, including a chessboard and slide, that reflects both the playful dialogue and the political games beyond the eponymous characters’ control, Tom Stoppard’s play was beautifully unravelled before the eyes of a captivated audience at the Assembly Rooms Theatre.

‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead’, skilfully directed by Ben Johanson, is based on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’. DUCT’s Hamlet, Emily Oliver, gave the role a brilliant madness with her physicality and expressions, as well as probably being the best dressed Hamlet I’ve seen. The more subtly dressed leading duo, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, played by Ben Smart and Adela Hernandez-Derbyshire respectively, genuinely seemed to be having enormous fun bouncing their lines off of each other’s, building tension and controlling when it dropped. Even when Hernandez-Derbyshire wasn’t speaking and her movement was limited, her characterisation was incredibly convincing. Their chemistry as these two ‘friends’ of Hamlet was enthralling due to the swiftness of their emotional depictions, which was aided by changes in tone and volume of their speech – it felt almost rude to be ‘eavesdropping’ on their conversations. One particular conversation felt especially pertinent, which was performed mostly with Smart and Hernandez-Derbyshire both sitting on the floor, capturing an almost childlike vulnerability. They captured the absurd nature of the play perfectly. 

Something that greatly impressed me as well was the use of shadows behind a white backdrop to tell parts of Hamlet, providing even more depth and just the right amount of delightful bawdiness in its depiction of Hamlet’s mother and uncle’s night-time activity. A particular moment that was wonderfully random was where Charlie Howe’s Claudius hit another character repeatedly with what looks like a wooden spoon behind the backdrop. 

Furthermore, the Player, incarnated by Ben Willows, performed beguiling monologues, which often provided the most thought-provoking content of the play. Yet this was balanced beautifully with the other side of his character: the leader of a troupe of actors willing to do anything for money. One of his troupe, Alfred (James Murray) pulled off a figure-hugging dress with confidence and style, and with very few words his character felt complete, gaining the audience’s sympathy. 

The other members of the troupe also provided excellent physicality to the production. They never really felt out of place onstage, which can be difficult with group blocking and acting. There were a couple of very brief moments where it seemed the Players were watching what was going on between the leads, rather than sustaining their individual character choices. However, their performance was mostly very convincing, particularly at the beginning of Act II, where it felt the troupe had settled into their roles a little more. 

The music choices of modern pop performed in a Medieval style was very popular with the audience, including Eurythmics, which contributed quite well to the absurdity of the play. On the subject of tech, the lighting choices made were not overused, and illustrated and complemented the actors terrifically, without just using a blackout or red light for the sake of using them. 

In conclusion, I was captivated by this performance which was slick and powerful without being preachy. The time slipped by during the performance, the performance almost seeming to accelerate towards the end, getting closer to fate’s chosen ending. A self-aware performance of a self-aware play.

By Martha Mulliner

Photo credits: DUCT