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Arts & Culture

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead

Stoppard's play takes its name from one of the closing lines in Shakespeare's

Hamlet. As Fortinbras surveys the dead at the end of the play, an ambassador reports: "The sight is dismal; And our affairs from England come too late: The ears are senseless that should give us hearing, To tell him his commandment is fulfill'd,That Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead: Where should we have our thanks?" From that single line and a pair of minor characters, Stoppard has crafted a witty take on the Bard from the wings and then turned it into an equally clever film.

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Tim Roth and Gary Oldman star in the film version of Stoppard's play. (BV)

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Stoppard's film version of his hit play opens with the music of Pink Floyd signaling the anachronistic slant he's about to take on the material. Stoppard, who has yet to direct again, says, "I directed it because I was the only one prepared to do violence to the text." He does make cuts and changes (most notably to some of the final lines of the play) but the high spirits and existential musings remain intact. At the time of the film's release, some critics complained that it didn't work as a film because the central metaphor of the characters' being off-stage has no equivalent in film where nothing is off-stage. But Stoppard simply extends his metaphor -- life and the world are the stage -- presented in the film and poor Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are still off in the wings trying to puzzle things out. Gary Oldman and Tim Roth make these Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum characters entirely endearing and enchanting. Stoppard offers us Waiting for Godot filtered through Shakespeare and Laurel and Hardy. But ultimately, Shakespeare and Stoppard are asking similar questions about existence and man's place in the universe.

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Rosencrantz ponders: "Life in a box is better than no life at all, I expect. You'd have a chance, at least. You could lie there thinking, Well. At least I'm not dead." That's a definite riff on Hamlet's "to be or not to be."

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead is a work designed to play off of and illuminate Shakespeare's text. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern seem to have as much understanding of Hamlet as a high schooler picking up the text for the first time. One of the joys of the film is the way it allows audiences to explore and revel in language. In the bonus features of the DVD, the actors reveal that they would rehearse scenes even after they had been shot just because it felt so good to let Stoppard's lines play trippingly upon the tongue.

Companion viewing: Hamlet (your choice of Branagh's uncut, Michael Almereyda's updating or Olivier's more traditional); Dogg's Hamlet, Cahoot's Macbeth; To Be or Not To Be (1942)

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