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Rosencrantz and Guildenstern live

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. By Tom Stoppard, English Touring Theatre.

Tours to Oxford, Guildford, Malvern, Salford, Coventry, Greenwich, Bristol, Richmond, Cambridge until July 23.

Hamlet's bit-part characters take centre stage in Tom Stoppard's play. Timothy Ramsden reports

Some years back, Nicholas Rowe played Guildenstern to Ralph Fiennes's Hamlet. In Stephen Unwin's revival of Tom Stoppard's after-Hamlet comedy he will play Rosencrantz. Moving in the opposite direction is James Wallace, who will be taking on the role of Guildenstern after playing Rosencrantz opposite Fiennes. All pure chance, we are assured. But it's a chance that fits the play well.

The indistinguishable bit-part characters from Hamlet (many productions have Claudius and Gertrude confuse them) take centre stage, beginning with a scene where a tossed coin comes down consistently on Guildenstern's side.

The two are alone, playing an idle game which shows them at the whim of fate, giving a sense of not being in control and of odds being stacked against the individual.

"Stoppard plays on their vulnerability and indistinguishability, but actually he makes them real people. Rosencrantz is passive, sweeter, open-hearted and dim, while Guildenstern is wound-up, driven, fiery, edgy and intelligent. They are equal and opposite forces. Both need each other; you can't imagine one without the other," says Unwin.

He describes the play's "sense of futility; it's the classic existential play - with linguistic energy, but harking back to something like Beckett and Kafka, which provides the melancholy undertone". Yet he finds the play to be "more than cold and clever comedy; it's a profound, philosophical dialogue, exquisitely written". It plays with iconic images of Hamlet and so can mostly be understood without detailed knowledge of Shakespeare's tragedy.

The play is also about theatre. Hamlet's First Player becomes a charming, funny but sinister character. "He is quixotic and shows them what their fate will be - but for him it's only a play. And he asks what death is - is it a stabbing on stage, or just disappearing and not returning?"

Theatre runs through each of Stoppard's acts. In the first, the Players arrive at Elsinore; in the middle act they rehearse the play they perform in Hamlet but keep bumping against scenes from that play, with Hamlet shouting against the poisoner king and queen rather than at Shakespeare's Claudius and Gertrude, while Act 3 asks where the action is taking place - on a boat or on a stage?

Unwin describes this last-act split awareness as "almost Brechtian; sometimes Stoppard shifts perceptions in a clean way, at others he segues".

So his production will play with the idea of somewhere that is a "place of enchantment and imagination, yet also the banal boards of a theatre".

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