Fools for thought

Wednesday, August 7, 1991

By Ulrike Erhardt

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead
A film by Tom Stoppard
Starring Gary Oldman, Tim Roth and Richard Dreyfuss
Reviewed by Ulrike Erhardt

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead and nobody cares. But Shakespeare couldn't have interpreted his Hamlet better than did Tom Stoppard, the writer and director of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead. Here we have the battle of two sexes fought by two men, whose different brain structures makes them see life from very different angles.

They are two characters asking, like the eternal Jew, the age-old question: "Why me?" when disaster strikes, feeling punished for something they haven't done — or have they?

Both see themselves only as onlookers at the court of Hamlet, prince of Denmark, where they depict the happenings around them as sheer madness. This is understandable, observing from below a court where things go wrong and power is shifted in a haphazard way. This mayhem is enhanced by a wandering group of actors — depicting mankind itself — who enjoy their manifold plays which always end in death. Excluded from death is their principal (God impersonated), who knows everything and outsmarts them all.

While Rosencrantz tries to make sense of all this by thinking logically and indulging in a lot of rhetoric — obviously zapping up more from the masculine, right side of the brain — Guildenstern uses more of his left, feminine brain side and tries with pragmatism to solve the puzzling questions Rosencrantz raises.

Believing he's in the know, Rosencrantz has no desire to interfere in the course of events, accepting the written word as gospel, until it's too late. Guildenstern is totally self-absorbed and playfully makes important observations whose impact totally eludes him because he lacks Rosencrantz's capacity to think abstractly. But whatever they o, they realise soon, nothing could have altered the outcome of events.

Gamblers that they are by nature, on sensing that they have no choices, they simply assume that the odds must have been against them and that life itself has only been a fluke. Still their exchanges may have paid off, for in the end we see them switching roles.

If you think this is all a bit too intellectual, you might be right. Not everyone can stomach a theatre play within a film which delights in rhetorical ball games. But Stoppard's brainchild is a feast for thinkers. It is not so enjoyable for doers, even if comedy is used to serve us the question of the meaning or futility of life in a digestible way. n

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