Directors Concept – Rosencrantz & Guildenstern

Director’s Concept by Scott D. Pafumi

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, written by Tom Stoppard

HERNDON High School Theatre Arts Department, Fall, 2022

Anyone who studies, reads, enacts, or produces Tom Stoppard’s most famous play (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) must have an affinity for Shakespeare. More specifically, there needs to be an appreciation for the tragedy of Hamlet.  It is hard to truly understand the themes, concepts, and basic set up of Stoppard’s play without first studying the plot structures and many layers of story development found in the Bard’s longest five act play.  The contemporary version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, written and first produced in the late 1960’s, was Stoppard’s attempt to bring meaning to two characters that are otherwise forgotten about in the great cannon of Shakespeare’s dramatic personae.  There tends to be so many unanswered questions about the true fate of Hamlet’s best friends from his school days.  To wit, “Were they guilty of betraying Hamlet?  Did they know they were working for a corrupt King? And were they smart enough to know the difference?”.  Answering these literary questions helps find conviction for the untimely death and most cruel punishment of the English gallows tree.  

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are scholars, still in their formative college years.  Subjects of philosophy, nature, science, rhetoric, and the laws of probability and effect fascinate them.  The very studies that they love to discuss become the musings and gameplay within their lives.  It is somewhere within their rhymes and reasons; however, they are eventually forced to look at the reality of their own fates.  Simply stated:  The King sent for them, they came to court to answer, and they are unwittingly, and unknowingly, sent away to their death in England.  

Perhaps the only one who speaks “truth” to them are the Tragedians, called by Hamlet as “the brief and abstract chronicles of our time.”  Through the illusion of the theatre, these actors, lead by the Player King, forewarn the hapless duo of events to come and fates unseen.  Thus, it becomes the theatre that is the metaphor for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s true meaning and purpose.  They are in a sense trapped in a world that they did not create, but must participate in.  John-Paul Sartre’s play, No Exit, serves as a perfect existential allusion to this theme of an eternity of being trapped.  Stoppard, like Shakespeare, enjoys using the theatre itself as the medium for telling a story, in what could be defined as “metatheatre” or theatre that allows for a breaking of the fourth wall.  These playwrights explore “holding a mirror up to nature” as it were, helping us to see a reality through the fiction of the drama.  

Perhaps my strongest conceptual choice will be in playing with character/actor gender identities.  In the world of Castle Elsinore of Denmark, King Claudius will be played by a female actor, portraying a “full round bellied man, with good capon lined”.  Queen Gertrude will be performed by a male actor, portraying a middle-aged woman of stature, grace, and dominance.  Hamlet, played by a female, to be seen as the angry young man full of the melancholic disposition.  Ophelia, played by a pretty male with soft features, to be seen as feminine and out balance in her biological humour.  We will carry on this gender bending as far as the character roster goes, while keeping the idea of modern casting to be out of sync with scripted expectation.  As for the players, they will be cast in the great traditions of the Italian Commedia, where women were first allowed to take the stage playing female roles.  They are all but clowns who serve at the pleasure of their audience.  As the Leading Player so aptly announces, “we are actors, we are the opposite of people!”

On the issue of casting the characters of R&G, we must consider how they should look together.  In the play Hamlet, Queen Gertrude has a line correcting King Claudius when he first calls Rosencrantz and Guildenstern by the opposite names.  In a later scene, Hamlet also plays to the theme of “who’s who” by making a joke of not knowing which one is which.  Stoppard then takes the confusion of their identity even further, infact to a more existential level, by having R&G themselves constantly question who they really are in this world.  They comically, or perhaps even mistakenly, call each other by the other one’s name.  Hence, the question is begged – Should they look like fraternal or even identical twins?  Male/Male, Male/Female, or even Female/Female?  In casting, we should lean into the great tradition of the Bard’s oldest joke of “a comedy of errors”.  Directors must need make a choice in how they want to illustrate this confusion of identity.  This confusion may either be created by a likeness in appearance of the actors, likening their similarities in size, shape, and gender, and/or in costuming and make up.  Perhaps more substantial in meaning to the modern play, one could cast two actors who look nothing alike.  The confusion can be from never being able to separate R&G as individuals because they are only ever seen together as one entity.  The latter example probably better defines one of the true subtextual meanings to the play, and that is, helping to create the comedy of the absurd.  

Speaking to the costuming of this show, I choose to create the world of Hamlet in the most classical fashion styles of the European Renaissance, circa early 17th century.  It is important that the one constant in the play of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern is that the story of Hamlet is in perpetual motion.  It is the play that will repeat itself through all time, echoing the themes of madness, betrayal, and revenge.  There is nothing that R&G can do to escape the demands of the scenes that they have been “called” to play in.  It is only when the whirlwind of courtiers and major characters of Castle Elsinore disappear, that R&G can step back, breathe a little, and contemplate their existence through contemporary language.  The player troupe should be dressed in player’s rags and bright costumed pieces to highlight the theatricality of their characters.  The soldiers of the court will be seen in their country and king’s vestments, and the pirates will be dressed as seafaring villains.  Lastly, it is imperative that R&G be wrapped in large flowing capes, which will serve many functions in their travels.  As compared to Samuel Becket’s 20th century classic, Waiting for Godot, they wait helplessly and timelessly for an answers.

Our set will be multi-leveled, with both curved and straight stair units.  Built into the center of the setting will be a miniature proscenium arch and royal curtain, to underscore “the play within a play” concept.  Rustic tones of brown, grey, and burgundy will highlight both royal themes and dimly lit taverns.  Riddled with player wagons, functional barrels, traveling crates, and a ship’s end, the set is to be decorated to bring the audience back in time 400 years ago, to Europe, to Denmark, to roads that lead to the seaside ‘scapes of Castle Elsinore.  Lighting will serve as both function and form, illuminating player scenes, highlighting dark corners of our protagonist’s journeys, and bringing full court scenes to life as lit by torch and candle.

Lastly, I would be remiss if I did not explain another “why” in choosing this play this year, in our season of “Almost Shakespeare”, for the fall of 2022.  Like the traveling hapless duo Rosencrantz & Guildenstern, my current senior class of 2023, has been on a six-year journey with me – their teacher, their director, their Player King (which I played in my high school’s Hamlet production, circa 1989).  5 years ago, at HMS Theatre, when the current seniors were but youngling Sevies, we put on The Lion King – Disney’s stolen story of the Bard’s tragedy about a Prince avenging his father.  When the ‘23’s were but fresh-faced freshmen, they served in the ensemble ranks of our 80’s themed Hamlet, led fiercely by a lady protagonist.  And so now, completing the Hamlet trifecta, we end the cycle by putting on Stoppard’s addition to this epic hero’s journey.   

It is my hope and goal to make a play most excellent with some thirty plus high school thespians.  As we entertain and educate our community of Herndon, let us become “such stuff as dreams are made on”. (Prospero, from Shakespeare’s The Tempest)