I first read this play either at school or at university - at any event, so long ago that I can no longer remember when - and it made me a fan of Tom Stoppard's work. Since that time I've seen productions of a number of his plays, including [b:Arcadia|384597|Arcadia|Tom Stoppard|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1318817035s/384597.jpg|1303332] (one of all time favourite pieces of theatre), [b:Travesties|17910|Travesties|Tom Stoppard|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1347440106s/17910.jpg|1176902] and [b:Rock 'n' Roll|17908|Rock 'n' Roll|Tom Stoppard|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1328856909s/17908.jpg|973275]. However, until last night I'd not seen a production of this play, which kickstarted Stoppard's career as a playwright when it was staged at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 1966.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is described as an absurdist, existentialist tragi-comedy. It focuses on two minor characters from Hamlet who wait in the wings as Shakespeare's tragedy is played out around them, confused and confounded by what is happening, uncertain of their identities, unable to rely on their memories. While Stoppard has Ros and Gil (or is it Gil and Ros?) engage in deep discussions about the meaning of life and death, the conflict between art and reality and the randomness of fate, they completely miss the signficance to their own situation of the philosophical concepts involved in their discussions. They have no existence independent of each other and no existence outside Hamlet - and no understanding of what that means.
Two aspects of the play really stand out for me. One is its metatheatricality. The whole play is a piece of metatheatre given that the the central characters are characters in Hamlet and the action takes place within and around a performance of Hamlet. However, there are also conscious echoes of Samuel Beckett's [b:Waiting for Godot|17716|Waiting for Godot|Samuel Beckett|http://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1327910301s/17716.jpg|2635502], discussions by the characters of theatrical performance and theory, repeated role-playing by Ros and Gil, and more than one variation of Hamlet's play-within-a-play. The effect is a complex and layered exposition of theatrical artifice.
The other aspect of the play that I particularly love is the language. Stoppard's wordplay is dazzlingly witty and inventive, while demonstrating how language can be used to confound and obfuscate reality and truth.
The Sydney Theatre Company production of the play I saw last night was brilliant, with wonderful performances, sensational set and costumes and great direction. I laughed until I cried. That has to indicate a great night at the theatre.