October 22, 2009

Stark, Raving Sane

As long-time readers of The Pond know, in my prior life I was involved in the theatre... or should that be The Theatre?  In amongst all the myriad shows I worked on or performed in (somewhere close to 200), there had to be a favorite, right?

Well, yes, but nobody's ever heard of The Mating Rituals of the Male, which was a one-man show/senior project that a friend of mine wrote and starred in.  After that, however, I find that I have to go with a pair of plays that will be forever joined at the hip.

The first, everybody knows... or, at least, they should: William Shakespeare's Hamlet.  The second is not so well known, Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.  For those of you unfamiliar with it, R&GAD is about two minor characters in Hamlet, characters who are confused about why they're in the play Hamlet, and confused about what's going on in Hamlet, since all they see of it is what occurs in the precious little time they're in the script. 

It doesn't so much "break the fourth wall" as not believe the fourth wall exists in the first place; the play is, the audience is integral to the existence of said play, and that's that.  While the titular characters don't ever actually dialogue directly with the audience, they quickly realize the situation they're in, and therefore there must BE an audience, Q.E.D. ("We're actors-- we're the opposite of people!" is a line that will never fail to make a theatre person laugh)

The movie of R&GAD is a minor masterpiece in and of itself, starring Tim Roth and Gary Oldman as the two leads.  As indicated in the play, however, neither is entirely sure which is Rosencrantz and which Guildenstern (though the credits reveal Oldman is Rosencrantz, Roth Guildenstern).  Richard Dreyfuss, as the scenery-masticating Player King, is also present to good effect.

I bring this up because this evening, I stumbled upon a short story that is brilliant in concept: what would happen if Shakespeare managed somehow to see R&GAD?  Fortunately, the author of this work is up to the challenge, but then Harry Turtledove does have a thing for alternative history, doesn't he?

SF publisher Tor has made the entire short story, "We Haven't Got There Yet", available on their website, for which fact I am eternally grateful. 

Posted by: Wonderduck at 11:51 PM | Comments (5) | Add Comment
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When it comes to judging art, opinions will vary drastically.

I grew up in Portland OR, and when I was in high school, some people from there put together a trip to Ashland OR, home of the Oregon Shakespearean Festival. This was in the spring, during what was then known as "Stage 2", which is when they put on things that weren't Shakespeare.

So I saw Antigone, and I saw a couple of other things I can't even remember, and I saw R&GAD. Their staging of it was particularly effective for me because it was very minimal. Before the ship, the stage was completely bare. No props at all. The backdrop was blank. It added to the surreality of the whole situation. And it added to the claustrophobia, as other characters entered and left freely from all directions, and yet R&G could not find an exit.

It also made for quite a shock once they did end up on the ship, and suddenly the stage was dressed, and there were sound effects in the background of the sea.

Stoppard himself was responsible for the film, so by definition it fits his image of the story. But I found the minimalistic version at OSF so effective that in turn I was very disappointed by Stoppard's film. It's too lush. The setting is too realistic. And R&G move around too much. They don't feel trapped, the way they did at OSF.

I really hated the film version.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at October 23, 2009 01:22 AM (+rSRq)

2 In my limited experience, a good stage production can ruin a movie for you, especially when you see the play first. The first time I saw Guys and Dolls was at the Midland, TX community theater. When I subsequently saw the movie, I thought it was terrible.

Posted by: Ben at October 23, 2009 08:04 AM (be3H9)

3 I loved the film version of R&G, but I never had the opportunity to see it on stage... especially not at OSF. While I was a season ticket holder at OSF, I did see Stoppard's "Arcadia" which was also equally wonderful. His work is fantastic.

Posted by: madmike at October 23, 2009 08:51 AM (vwlCI)


The four times I've seen a stage production of R&GAD, including the one I worked on, the sets have been much like how Steven described it, except for one small difference.  Instead of being bare all the time except for the ship, the set is detailed only when they're actually in a scene (or observing a scene) from Hamlet, such as when they watch Hamlet's "To be or not to be" solilliquiy (and even then, they were on a blank stage... Hamlet, on the other hand, was not).

The whole key is lightning-fast scenery changing and careful lighting of the stage...

Posted by: Wonderduck at October 23, 2009 12:03 PM (OS+Cr)


And that's what Stoppard didn't do in the film. I'm not sure where it was filmed, but it was a gorgeous setting. R&G move around a lot, to different settings, and it's always amazing looking. Almost distracting.

But it ruins the mood that the play itself is trying to establish. It almost makes me wonder if Stoppard had forgotten his original idea for the play.

Posted by: Steven Den Beste at October 23, 2009 12:10 PM (+rSRq)

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