Review: Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead (Soulpepper)

Tom Stoppard’s classic as theatre in the round at Toronto’s Young Centre for the Performing Arts

I am not sure if you will ever see a truly bad show at Soulpepper, it is always a favourite to review because of its budget, ideal space at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts and its high calibre of talent. I rushed into Wednesday night’s production of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead with such expectations and was thrilled to see the show was set in the round. Dana Osborne’s bare bones, in-the-round staging and Kevin Lamotte’s simple and effective lighting were a perfect complement to both the show’s existential nature as well as its Shakespearian scenes that we know were written for the groundlings in the pit.

A postmodern take on Hamlet’s themes of life, death and “what’s it all for anyway” questioning, Tom Stoppard wrote the classic work in 1966 when postmodernism and metatheatre were in their dawn and it seems right that Soulpepper use the classic for its 2013 season opener – yes they open their season in February.

Stoppard famously used Hamlet’s inconsequential messengers to deliver Hamlet’s musings in fractured and hilarious stops and starts, largely influenced by the modernist canon (think Beckett meets Bard). This is a classic piece of course and like so many of Soulpepper’s choices it is widely studied but much less often performed.

This is year 15 for a company that seems much wiser than its pubescence. The season opener is directed by founding member Joseph Ziegler and features a cast of ensemble members including Toronto theatre heavyweights Ted Dyskstra and Jordan Pettle as the title characters. Some newer faces make up the traveling band of actors that do much to punctuate the piece and there are some lovely little cameos from Diego Matamoros and Nancy Palk as Claudius and Gertrude.

And so, here is where my heart breaks. I love the ambition of this piece but for me, it just didn’t jive. It felt limp and leggy rather than the quippy and sharp piece that I was hoping for. I sat puzzled, trying to figure out why it just wasn’t working. Love Ziegler though I do, I just felt that the timing was off the whole way through – just way too much lag time. I think, for me, the main issue I had was that the comedy felt unnecessarily dulled. This company is great at delivering gripping scenes and making you think about life but the comedy….the comedy left me wanting.

The laughs were mainly reference laughs, the ones written into the script. My date for the night, a comedian, pointed out that it was telling that the entire slapstick chase in the third act – yes, there are three acts so top up your parking meter – did not even garner a giggle from an otherwise overly generous audience made up of industry folk and actors.

I agree that this was very telling. It all felt too much the same – I longed for an improvised and comedic spirit with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern and for a pronounced heaviness with Hamlet and his supporting characters. I got neither. Many of the comedic beats felt staid and sadly the juxtaposing sadness of the weightier material felt underserved, its sharpness dulled.

If you look at the when and where of this piece – as Soulpepper is usually so brilliant in doing – you see Stoppard writing at the time of the Pythons, the Footlights and Douglas Adams. This work had the same freshness and bravery and wit and was the first of its kind in a bold and exciting time for British comedy.

Relevant to our city – a city currently brimming with comedic genius – this may serve as a lesson for Soulpepper to open its doors a little wider. We house Second City, legions of comedy professionals, and probably more clowns per capita than any city outside of France. When it comes to self-effacing, irreverent humour, Torontonians can nail it, but not this time.

This show was originally a Fringe show in fact; its first incarnation was at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. This show felt as far from the Fringe in every way imaginable and I longed for that brand of bravery. For all the capable talent on the stage, it somehow missed out on delivering that kind of punch. Rather than breaking new ground, it wanders around in circles that are very well trodden – both on stage and off. I guess it doesn’t get more Meta than that.