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I’ve not seen many plays in my life, and it’s many decades since I did any English literature study at school. But my husband and I recently went to see the National Theatre Live cinema broadcast – broadcast live as the play was performed – of the latest West End production of Tom Stoppard’s play inspired by Hamlet. The play was staged at the Old Vic Theatre in London, and starred Joshua McGuire, Daniel Radcliffe, and David Haig. The play is a retelling of sorts of Hamlet, turning things around to give the perspective of two minor characters in that play.

Now I reckon how people respond to this play will vary, largely depending on their knowledge of the Shakespeare original. Some will know Hamlet well. I know it very barely. Thirty years ago I went to see a touring Royal Shakespeare Company production, in Carlisle. My class at school, who were going with other classes, hadn’t read this play, or studied it. So it was a bit “Whoah! What’s going on here?” Though still enjoyable, and surprisingly comprehensible. But that was a long time ago, and I’ve never read the play, before or since. I couldn’t even remember much about the characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, beyond their names, not even their final fate. But at least I could vaguely remember what was going on with the Danish court, and so was not completely confused.

My husband, by contrast, doesn’t know Hamlet at all. And, as he put it, he was baffled by all the comings and goings in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, and didn’t know who anyone was. But he still enjoyed it! Which is rather a good measure of how well the play can still work even for audience members unfamiliar with the Shakespeare original. And of course not knowing what on Earth is going on is exactly the same state the central characters are in, so it’s not a bad mood to capture. We both liked the fast and witty wordplay, and the humour running throughout. I particularly liked the Player character, who had most of the best lines IMHO. I loved the idea of players within plays, which was repeated over and over again, in so many ways. We also admired the staging of this play. Even as newcomers to it, we could appreciate the detailed thought that had gone into elements such as the overall design, costumes, and the music.

Watching a National Theatre Live performance of a play in a cinema is fun, but certainly different. You do almost feel as though you’re there, with background noise from the theatre audience beforehand, and a sense of occasion. And we probably had better views of the actors than many people sitting in the theatre in London. We cinema viewers could benefit from multiple camera angles, and close ups. And you still feel as though you’re watching a live performance. We’d seen one other NT Live performance before in the cinema – Frankenstein, with Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller – but that was a recorded encore repeat, so didn’t have quite the same sense of liveness about it.

I don’t usually read a play script after watching a play, but I enjoyed this one so much that I ordered the book. In particular I wanted to note all my favourite lines somewhere properly. I read through the play with glee, and stuck in many dozens of post-it notes, then typed up my favourite bits at the end. So many. And then, to try to better understand the play, I went on to read a critical guide to it. That’s helping, but I’m still puzzling over certain things. But puzzling in a happy way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see another NT Live play in the next year. It’s a fantastic way to see superb productions, but still locally. And we are going to go see an amateur dramatics version of a Terry Pratchett book soon. That’ll be different again, but hopefully entertaining in its own way.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead play books

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