Waiting for Hamlet

19th January 1996 at 00:00
Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Royal National Theatre and touring) owes as much to Beckett's Waiting for Godot as it does to its more obvious inspiration, Hamlet.

The two displaced lords, interchangeable in the eyes of the Elsinore court, play out their lives according to the whims of others. While they wait in antechambers between sudden irruptions of Shakespeare's plot, they attempt to make sense of life and mortality with playful, if desperate, logic. This builds to small crescendoes of cleverness which appear to place the play in direct descent from the university wits. Adrian Scarborough and Simon Russell Beale manage all this with a kind of lugubrious glee in Matthew Francis' stylish production. Alan Howard as the worldly-wise Player King is living proof that "actors are the opposite of people", one of the play's best-known aphorisms.

If the whole procedure now seems repetitive and too long for its self-satisfied cleverness, that is not the fault of the production and students will certainly enjoy a chance to hear the badinage so slickly accomplished (0171 928 2252 tour: 0171 620 2830).

Anastasia Hille's fascinatingly nervy Duchess in Cheek by Jowl's The Duchess of Malfi (Wyndham's Theatre until January 27) is no plaster saint: she is lustful and angry as well as passionate and brave. Her brothers' sexual possessiveness leads credibly to her hiding her marriage and to the resulting tragedy. Set by director Declan Donnellan in a vaguely 30s Italy, the characters are freed from their "classic" shackles and become recognisable human beings; events are given an ironic modern twist without detracting from Webster's text. If the emphasis on Catholicism - incense, plainsong and a crucifix angrily cast aside by the Duchess in her agony - is sometimes de trop, this is an undeniably fresh and thought-provoking production. And never has the crucial line "I am Duchess of Malfi, still" been uttered with such a cynical swagger, in itself a lesson in the infinite variety of theatrical interpretation. (0171 369 1746 344 4444)

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