Playing Stoppard’s verbal quidditch

Daniel Radcliffe puts Potter behind him as Rosencrantz in the Old Vic’s revival of a youthful masterpiece

Anne McElvoy

On the list of people I feel sorry for, megastars — sighing that the childhood roles that made them too recognisable to be taken on their adult merits — score pretty low. But Daniel Radcliffe, tethered to the world of Gryffindor and the curse of Voldemort while his peers were hacking their way up through drama school, does carry a burden. You can tell quite how hefty it is by the difficulty of securing a seat at the Old Vic, let alone braving the whoops and whistles the moment the man formerly known as Harry Potter tosses his first coin as the distracted Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard’s breakthrough drama.

Stoppard began writing it at just 27, the same age as Radcliffe now. It is revived in the year that the knighted author turns 80 and the golden jubilee of the first London staging, after it had trundled around various companies, ending up with a student ensemble in Oxford and finally bringing its free-wheeling treatment of Elsinore to the Old Vic court of Laurence Olivier and Ken Tynan.

The brilliance of Stoppard still has the whiff of its young writer, amazed by the sheer dexterity of words and ideas — “all the usual stuff, just inside out”, is only one of the scores of throwaway great lines. But from the flimsy cloth of the fates of two bit players in Hamlet, the young Stoppard weaves a shining metaphysical comedy. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern (Joshua McGuire) are an adept double-act, inspired in part by Morecambe and Wise: two parts of the whole of mankind, bouncing jokes off each other, while completing the absences of the other. As Rosencrantz, Radcliffe is anxious, vulnerable and self-doubting (Potter fans will have got the idea from a mere eight films). That portrayal suits his fluting voice and slight physique. Even his beard looks like the fluffy student kind. McGuire as Guildenstern has the advantage of being the more assertive character and inhabits the role of bossy friend-in-need with aplomb.

His Guildenstern represents the side of us that sees the odd journey of life as somehow worth the absurdity, fear and haplessness, while Rosencrantz nervily contemplates disaster — correctly, as we know from Hamlet. A near miss on the makeshift vessel bearing them towards their fate in England is announced with the perfect economy of a Stoppardism: “Pirates could happen to anyone,” closely followed by Radcliffe’s despairing cry, “I don’t believe in England.”

The wit and charm of the play lies in the fact that the actors are, as the chief Player (David Haig) in a random gaggle of lost actors explains flatly, “the opposite of people”. But like Beckett’s Estragon and Vladimir, they are ciphers for perplexed humankind, baffled by where we are and what we have become.

To carry a confection of a fantastical plot channelling 1960s existentialism over two and a half hours needs a powerful hinge. By turns humiliating, frivolous and manipulative, Haig is both a messenger for the power of art (a theme that will echo down the decades to come in Stoppard) and a cynical brute, offering cheap thrills. An audience of just two is, “for an audience, disappointing. For voyeurs, about average.” With his circus-master mane and dodgy tattoos, he colludes with us voyeurs in the stalls too: “We can do you ghosts and battles, on the skirmish level, heroes, villains, tormented lovers, set pieces in the poetic vein; we can do you rapiers or rape or both . . .”

David Leveaux’s production, which runs until May 6, is pacey while escaping the tendency of directors to add excessive speed to Stoppard’s exhilarating wordspin. It’s true, some of Radcliffe’s fans sounded a bit lost by the action: the admirers behind me had to be reminded that there was a second half. But this star is choosing his stage roles smartly and unshowily and building a better sense of the timing that Stoppard demands.

On reflection, Radcliffe’s stage oeuvre has grown steadily, from Equus to The Cripple of Inishmaan and, on Broadway, James Graham’s Privacy. I would guess his devout wish is for us all to reach the point when we put away the Potter references. Not so fast, young wizard; but considering the lucrative rubbish he could devote his post-Hogwarts attention to, let’s give the chap a break.

At the other end of the acting career span, Simon Callow moves without apparent effort from acting to books on Wagner and a fresh incarnation as director — a role he last tried out briefly in 1991. The Philanthropist, at the Trafalgar Studios until July 22, revives Christopher Hampton’s acidic campus satire, set in an Oxbridge world, distant from the rough edges of the world outside it. A group of self-obsessed college sorts, their lovers and a preening novelist attend to their private lives, while outside the quads and rectories, the prime minister is assassinated and writers are targeted by terrorists.

The extraordinary thing about this is that what looked like an extreme scenario when it was first staged in 1971 now bears a troubling similarity to today’s Britain, in which terror attacks pass with a sad shrug and fanatics of all hues routinely declare cultural figures fair game.
Hampton’s play bears strong traces of Molière, a writer whose caustic wit and moral astringency he admires. The philanthropist Philip (Matt Berry ) is an unassertive sort, who manages, in a grim comedy of happenstance and bad timing, to cause the death of a student dramatist, feud with an appallingly self-satisfied novelist and indulge in a bout of promiscuity with further disastrous consequences.

While I can’t bring you a full review (fear of theatre-critic rustication, due to an embargo as heavily enforced as the Maginot line), this production packs in winsome TV stars alongside the portentous Berry, with Tom Rosenthal, Simon Bird and model-actress-thingummy Lily Cole. On an early glimpse, the challenge for Callow (who would excel in the lead himself) is that the result of packing a lot of actors with TV followings but less stage experience together is that absolutely everything is played at full tilt, as if they all feared we might switch over to Line of Duty. But Hampton’s tale, though a farce about weakness and wordiness, shares a dark heart with its progenitor Molière. Lose that and you have a romp in the quad, but not a story that should appall as well as amuse. Let’s see if Callow can recalibrate as The Philanthropist packs them in.

As for the impertinent portrayal of tweedy dons, so out of touch with the rest of the country that they fail to spot what is happening under their noses, I can only refer you to the uncomprehending response of high tables to Brexit. Call for a playwright, someone.

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