Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead… Or Are They?

To be or not to be, that was the question. The legendary question Hamlet asked in the opening of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet as he descended into madness, questioning the importance of his own existence and whether it was nobler to suffer one’s afflictions or put an end to them. 

What happens when you expand on that simple, well-known question? You see the basis of the tragic comedy Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead form in front of you, as we did last night at Hart House Theatre to kick off their 2012/2013 season.

The play itself expands upon the exploits of Rosencrantz (Jim Armstrong) and Guildenstern (Andrew Knowlton), two minor characters from Hamlet, and takes place “off stage” of Hamlet, with the main characters making only brief appearances in this rendition. Merging the two plays together, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern spend the majority of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead voicing their confusion about the roles they are being asked to play in the story of Hamlet, as they have no actual direct knowledge of what is occurring in that play.

Get it? Got it? It might be a bit hard to swallow, which is fitting to the play itself, full of endless nonsensical ramblings between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as they flip back and forth between understanding and confusion, between clarity and ambiguity. They can’t rely on their own memories, they often confuse their own names (as do the other characters in the play) and while they do uncover deep philosophical truths, they turn their backs on the ideas as quickly as they formed.

The voyage of these two clowns, literally as they travel to England and philosophically as they travel toward accepting their despondent fate, is one hell of a ride. But a hilarious one at that. It would be so easy to see this existential train go flying of the tracks creating a cloud of confusion for the audience instead of its characters, but it’s crafted so tightly that there is no chance of that happening. 

The chemistry between Armstrong and Knowlton is potent; they feed off each others energy, they push each other one step further and have such a natural reliance and trust in the other that the senseless interactions, the games of Questions, the endless philosophical conversations take on a life of their own. It’s not hard to believe the two characters have been friends since childhood; the actors make it look so easy.

Benjamin Muir takes on Hamlet’s decent into madness with a reminiscence of a Johnny Depp-like character with a bit of Prince flare, which we have no complaints about. His overdramatic theatrics added a little lightness to the otherwise dark comedy. 


While David Tripp added another level to the Player, commanding a group of misfit Tragedians and often embarking on his own vibrant rants about the pains of being an actor.

To be or not to be, that question, lingers throughout the play, along with many other philosophical themes that make this more than just a night out at the theatre. But for those who don’t shy away from the analysis of life, its meaning, and one’s place in it, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead asks all the important questions. The answers, of course, depend on you.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead has its final run this weekend at Hart House Theatre: Friday @ 8pm, Saturday @ 2pm and 8pm. Tickets: Adults $25, Students and Seniors $15 at UofTix.

Images from Hart House Theatre.