Review: Words, Words, Words / Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at QMUL (Scratch Night)

A ‘scratch night,’ apparently, is more or less an open dress rehearsal, one of the last runs the cast will do before opening night, with an audience of largely other related theatre people who give notes afterward.  It was one of our requirements to see one for Reading Theatre class, and upon learning that the week of scratches at a nearby professional theatre has been moved to March, we were very lucky to find out that Queen Mary’s own Theatre Company are doing scratch nights for this weekend’s Midseason Festival of shows.  I and several others from the class joined a group of seasoned QMTCers Thursday night to watch a scratch of most of the Friday night shows, and if those performances were just works-in-progress, they are well on their way to having a fantastic opening night.

‘Words, Words, Words’ is a ten-minute play written by David Ives that more or less acts out the Infinite Monkey Theorem: the idea that a monkey hitting random keys on a typewriter for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, in this case Shakespeare’s Hamlet.  The play follows three monkeys, named Swift, Milton, and Kafka, as they consider human nature, philosophize on the act of playwriting, and frustratedly try to recreate Hamlet without having any idea what it is.

The full-body monkey suits the actors wear add to the humor of the piece without overpowering it; the humans are comfortable enough in the suits to simply make them a piece of the character.  Their performance as the monkeys is dynamic and believable, casually slipping quotes from Shakespeare and other famous texts into their speech to give the audience a thrill without missing a beat themselves.

By far the most impressive part of the play, however, was the energetic and intricately choreographed dance/movement sequences this production’s directors added to the piece, turning cliche monkey movements into a stylized dance that fills the space and awes the entire audience, particularly anyone such as myself who has ever tried to choreograph teenage male actors to do anything.  My one criticism of the piece is that the dance and dialogue sections, while both excellent, seemed to belong to two different worlds rather than sliding effortlessly in and out of one another, but I have confidence that tonight’s performance of the piece will accomplish that feat as well.


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, the iconic Tom Stoppard existentialist play that fills in the background of Hamlet’s neglected, underdeveloped and ultimately doomed old friends, found its strength in this production through unconventional staging and strong performances by its actors.  Rather than putting up the play in the black box studio where the rest of the Midseason Festival plays take place, the directors decided to stage the play in the nearby film studio, a space here converted to a bare room with four walls of black curtains and miscellaneous chairs, benches and cushions all around the edge.

The performance truly begins, however, outside the theatre space in the foyer, where the actors move in and out of the waiting space, reading, pacing, and otherwise putting their characters on display for the audience.  The spectators are then instructed to move into the main performance space by the Player King with an addendum about fighting over seats, and she’s not joking–I ultimately got booted out of my chair by Guildenstern so that he could use it and had to sit on a cushion on the floor for the hour-and-a-half-long play.

Any glancing familiarity with the Stoppard text should inform you just how difficult this play is to perform.  Circular, repetitive, and constantly disorienting, the dialogue between Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, as well as other characters, has the power to distract, bore and alienate, and thus the fact that the performance was as engaging as it was is itself a major accomplishment.  The titular characters maintained a fantastic level of energy through constantly switching places, throwing coins, and speaking the dialogue at a remarkable speed–but one that unfortunately meant that some of their words were lost.  The in-the-round staging seemed to work best when only those two actors were on stage; more actors, and especially more static actors, obscured vision and brought down the dynamic energy of the show, while falling victim to that in-the-round error of playing to the sides of the stage rather than to the corners.

The original Hamlet characters fell flat, perhaps even more flat than Stoppard intended, and often detracted from the plight of R&G rather than giving their situation added complexity.  The brief appearances of Gertrude and Ophelia, Shakespeare’s two fascinating female characters, were particularly forgettable, and Hamlet’s own madness was one-dimensional and not quite interesting enough to be believable as the mystery R&G are recruited to help solve.

More than making up for this dynamic, however, was the show-stealing performance of the Player King, who dominates the stage every time she enters, questions reality, and adds additional layers of philosophical complications by constantly reminding the audience and the actors that none of this is real.  Another favorite part of mine was the portrayal of Alfred, the young male actor/prostitute who in this production is a recruited member of the audience, whom the other players dress in medieval hotpants, direct to mock-poison Claudius, and return to again and again throughout the show, keeping the audience on its toes as to who will be the next to join the performance.

The actors in fact play to the audience constantly throughout the show, dropping down to our level, maintaining eye contact and occasionally physical contact, and otherwise making known that they are aware of our presence.  This individual connection with audience members was vital to making the play engaging and memorable, and on this first run with a real audience indicated just how strong the performance was and how ready the cast is for opening night.  They’re already sold out, so hopefully all goes well tonight.

Scratch Night was exciting and fun, and with all of the audience current or future QMTC members brought a greater sense of community amongst the spectators than you normally see in the theatre.  These plays are all slightly makeshift, as is typical in university theatre (no or minimal sets, ill-fitting costumes, tech that is still being worked out), and yet depicted a greater degree of professionalism than I had any right to expect.  It suffices to say, I am extremely excited to see the rest of the Midseason Festival shows this weekend, and perhaps to even get involved myself in the next festival.  Stay tuned for more on that!


One response to “Review: Words, Words, Words / Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead at QMUL (Scratch Night)

  1. Harlan & Sally Johnson

    I think that you wrote this review, Natalie. It is very well written. Still gloomy here in Arkansas. Grandma J

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