REVIEW — Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (1990)

Having just finished putting up my review of Gemma Bovery, I find myself linking to yet another work of cinematic metafiction intended as a means of approaching a classic text from an entirely new perspective. Well… I say “new” but FilmJuice have my review of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are dead.

I love the idea of metafiction. Metafiction is one of those quintessentially postmodern literary devices that serve not only to highlight the artificiality of a given text, but also to explore it from an entirely new perspective. Metafiction works by locating holes in the plot, character, or setting and then creating a fresh text that not only fills the holes, but links them together in a way that forces you to look upon the original text in a different way.  Like many postmodern devices, the principle aesthetic of metafiction is cleverness and so the name of the game is usually to see how many gaps you can fill, and how far you can distort the original text without the entire thing becoming cumbersome and boring. I love the idea of metafiction but tend to find that cleverness is a singularly unappealing aesthetic.

Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead was a classic play before it was a classic film and the adaptation is weighted down by the fact that a) Tom Stoppard is no film director and b) Many of the ideas that Stoppard tried to extract from Hamlet have entered the mainstream and feel neither fresh nor in need of the kind of complex metafictional infrastructure that Stoppard felt obliged to create. Did we really need an entirely new text to draw our attention to the absurd nihilism at the heart of Hamlet? Maybe back in 1966.

But I’m skipping ahead of myself… Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is a work of metafiction about two of Hamlet‘s more inconsequential characters. In the text of the play, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are two of Hamlet’s old school friends who turn up in Denmark, listen to a couple of speeches, get involved in courtly intrigue and wind up sentencing themselves to death. Stoppard’s play and film use the characters not only to draw our attention to the contrivances at the heart of Hamlet, but also to drive home the vicious nihilism that haunts the events of the play. Thematics aside, Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead is all about the linguistic games and philosophical tangents explored at 100 miles-per-hour. Unfortunately, Stoppard’s directorial inexperience completely undermines this aspect of the play:

When performed live, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is all about speed of delivery and the way that a conversation about one thing can suddenly blossom into a scene from Hamlet dealing with something else entirely. Performed live, the play is immensely impressive if only because of the sheer speed and complexity of the material being delivered. Having been asked to adapt his play for the screen, Stoppard evidently decided that he should try to make the play seem more cinematic but rather than replacing elements of the play with elements that might work better in a cinematic format, Stoppard took the text of his play and inserted additional cinematic elements like elegant footage of the decaying castle and visual jokes about people being chased up and down corridors. While these elements are not in and of themselves terrible, they do serve to slacken the pace of the narrative and so undermine the sense of speed and flow that is evident even in the written form of the source material. The result is an adaptation that feels overly long and cluttered to the point where it calls into question the cleverness of the source material.

Another thing that occurred to me after writing this review is that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead seems to harken back to a rather dated form of Shakespearean performance. Prior to the likes of Olivier, Shakespeare was often performed purely for the strength of its mouth music and so actors would plant themselves in the middle of the stage and deliver magnificent orations without being overly fussed about the nature of the characters they were meant to be portraying. It occurs to me that Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead harkens back to this unfashionable approach in so far as the play’s aesthetics are all about speed and elegance of delivery rather than expressions of character. Tim Roth, Richard Dreyfuss, and Gary Oldman are all superb actors but it struck me that, aside from mouth music and gurning, the play did not offer them very much to do.