Tom Stoppard’s most popular play has just returned to the theatre where it made his name 50 years ago. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead had its professional world premiere at the Old Vic, then home to the National Theatre (NT) Company, in April 1967. Now, in a new revival directed by David Leveaux, Daniel Radcliffe (Rosencrantz) and Joshua McGuire (Guildenstern) take to the stage of the same London theatre – which had, indirectly, inspired Stoppard’s play.
Late in 1963, Stoppard, then an aspiring playwright and screenwriter of 26, with almost a decade’s experience as a journalist, shared a London taxi with his agent, Kenneth Ewing, after a fruitless meeting with television producers. Ewing talked of having recently seen Peter O’Toole as Hamlet in the NT Company’s opening production at the Old Vic, and suggested that Stoppard might find it amusing to write something around Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
On holiday in Scotland in January 1964, Stoppard reread Hamlet, King Lear and various critical studies. After winning a Ford Foundation fellowship, he joined a five-month Literarisches Colloquium for young playwrights at a villa on Lake Wannsee and worked on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Meet King Lear, a one-act play featuring Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, the Player, King Lear, Horatio and Hamlet: on the boat to England, Hamlet and Player swap identities. A 25-minute version was presented at Berlin’s Forum Theatre. Back in London, Stoppard directed a rehearsed reading of a fresh draft, Guildenstern and Rosencrantz, at the Questors Theatre, Ealing.
In March 1965, he completed a revised, two-act script (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern’s position in Hamlet was now more prominent), which he sent to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Its Literary Manager, Jeremy Brooks, said it had been ages “since I have actually had to suppress laughter when reading a play in order not to annoy… other people.” The RSC bought a one-year option and commissioned Stoppard to write a third act.
Trevor Nunn, 26, a junior RSC associate director, was keen to stage the play as one of four premieres at the Jeanetta Cochrane Theatre in London, but financial pressure led this season to be cancelled. The RSC’s option expired and the play, as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, reached Frank Hauser, boss of Oxford Playhouse, who passed it to the undergraduate Oxford Theatre Group; its enterprising President obtained Ewing’s permission to take the play to the Cranston Street Hall for the Edinburgh Fringe in August.
The students’ production was greeted by Ronald Bryden of The Observer as an “erudite comedy, punning, far-fetched, leaping from depth to dizziness”; Stoppard had turned “the vestigial lives of Hamlet’s two Wittenberg cronies” into “an existential fable unabashedly indebted to [Samuel Beckett’s] Waiting for Godot, but as witty and vaulting as Beckett’s original is despairing.”
The NT’s literary manager, Kenneth Tynan, read The Observer and requested a copy of the play script. Tynan admired Rosencrantz…, as did Laurence Olivier, the NT’s Director, who committed to producing it. Stoppard, the youngest dramatist in the NT’s brief history, was now aired with its youngest director, Derek Goldby, 26, and thoroughly revised the script used in Edinburgh.
John Stride and Edward Petherbridge took the title roles: Stride (Fortinbras in the NT Hamlet) was the garrulous Rosencrantz, not as dumb as he first appears, and Petherbridge was the irritable, sarcastic Guildenstern, not as clever as he thinks he is. Guildenstern is first seen engaged in a coin-tossing game which Rosencrantz has won with “Heads”, an “impossible” 85 times in a row. Thereafter, the pair’s endearing, doomed bumbling – punctuated by brief extracts from Hamlet that remind us Shakespeare’s play is concurrently progressing towards its bloody climax – reflected Stoppard’s desire to ‘rehabilitate’ two characters who, he felt, “seem to be misrepresented in Hamlet. They are portrayed as black conspirators with the King, but they are just a couple of men… who are not told very much and have to get on with it.”
Stoppard attended a preliminary reading with the NT’s principal actors, including John McEnery as Hamlet, and then deliberately kept out of Goldby’s way for the first week of rehearsals; thereafter he was a constant, invaluable presence.
Petherbridge relished the “champagne impact” of Stoppard’s language; the title characters were “Shakespearean actors crossed with a Vaudeville double-act”, dressed by set and costume designer Desmond Heeley in “peacock blue” (Guildenstern) and “brown velvet and wrinkled woollen stockings” (Rosencrantz).
On opening night, Tuesday 11 April 1967, Stoppard did not see the whole performance: “In the middle [of Act One], I’d heard a man in a dinner jacket say to his companion ‘Oh I do wish they’d get on.’ So my spirit failed, and my wife was nervous, too, and we went next door to the pub in the first interval. To my eternal regret, we didn’t go back in.”
After curtain down, he went to a newsagent to pick up the overnight reviews: “We have a stunning new playwright.” – Peter Lewis, Daily Mail. “Two young actors nurtured… by the [NT are] now fulfilling themselves with wit and intelligence.” – Herbert Kretzmer, Daily Express. “A fairly pithy and witty theatrical trick… elongated merely to make an evening of it.” – Philip Hope Wallace, The Guardian.
On the Sunday, Ronald Bryden enhanced his Edinburgh verdict: this was now “the most brilliant dramatic debut of the 1960s.” Leading American producers scrambled to acquire the play for Broadway. The US rights went to David Merrick, who had given New Yorkers Oliver! He read Rosencrantz… and the London reviews and cabled Olivier on 4 May: “Dear Larry I am absolutely mad about Rosencrantz and Guildenstern STOP Please do everything you can to get it for me STOP Terms no object STOP…” He saw off his rivals by offering the National 50% of the US profits, crazily generous terms by Broadway standards, because the deal was with the charitable David Merrick Arts Foundation, rather than the profit-driven David Merrick Productions.
Stoppard and Goldby collaborated again on the American production, with Brian Murray as Rosencrantz and John Wood as Guildenstern. Cuts would knock 45 minutes off the London running time, and Goldby felt the play “got flashier”, because American audiences “demanded a kind of slapstick quality.”
After Rosencrantz… opened in October at the 1,400-seat Alvin Theatre (now the Neil Simon), Merrick placed full-page advertisements in the New York Times, filled with ecstatic comments from rave reviews, including the newspaper’s own Clive Barnes (“A most remarkable and thrilling play”). The show transferred to the smaller Eugene O’Neill Theatre in January 1968 and ran until October, winning Tony awards for Best Play, Producer and Set and Costume Design.
Outside the Alvin a few days after the opening, a woman had asked Stoppard what his play was about. He replied: “It’s about to make me rich.” Reported in the next day’s New York newspapers, this remains Stoppard’s most celebrated (off-stage) one-liner, spoken only “because I was sick of people asking me what the play was about. It sounds triumphalist, when in fact I was just snapping at her.” Merrick told him he would earn $6,000 a week from the New York run – at least $60,000 today.
The Hollywood studio MGM bought the screen rights to Rosencrantz… for $250,000, of which $100,000 went to Stoppard – staggeringly large amounts for a play whose linguistic panache and static action hardly suggested a cinematic blockbuster-in-the-making.
In London, the National kept recasting – Edward Hardwicke replaced Stride in June 1969, and Ronald Pickup, having succeeded John McEnery as Hamlet, graduated to Guildenstern – and the play finally closed after its 151st Old Vic performance, in October 1970.
Rosencrantz…, Ewing recalled, was also a hit in Italy, and “did enormous business in Germany and Scandinavia and Japan.” To Stoppard’s dismay, the coin-tossing began to infiltrate productions of Hamlet: “I’ve seen two when the first time you come upon Rosencrantz and Guildenstern they’re spinning coins. Unbearable! I did try to talk one director out of it, but failed.”
MGM never filmed Rosencrantz…, but Stoppard eventually made his movie directing debut by shooting his own screenplay with Gary Oldman and Tim Roth in the title roles; his film won the Golden Lion at Venice in 1990.
Rosencrantz… returned to the NT, at the Lyttelton in 1995, with Adrian Scarborough (Rosencrantz) and Simon Russell Beale (Guildenstern), and in 2011, Trevor Nunn, having missed out on the play’s world premiere, directed a Chichester/Theatre Royal Haymarket revival starring two of the original classmates from Alan Bennett’s The History Boys: Samuel Barnett (Rosencrantz) and Jamie Parker (Guildenstern).
When the NT marked its 50th birthday with the Fifty Years on Stage gala in the Olivier, broadcast on BBC2 on 2 November 2013, one of the first play extracts performed live featured Benedict Cumberbatch’s Rosencrantz talking about death with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith’s Guildenstern.
Among the reminiscences printed in the gala programme was Stoppard’s, on 1967: “One day Laurence Olivier sat in on a rehearsal of Rosencrantz…. He made one or two useful suggestions and got up to go back to his office down the corridor… At the door he turned and smiled. ‘Just the odd pearl,’ he said, and left.”
This is an edited extract from Daniel Rosenthal’s ‘The National Theatre Story’ (Oberon Books), which won the 2014 Theatre Book Prize. ‘Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead’ is at the Old Vic Theatre from until 29 April