Just seen the 2017 version of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (New Statesman’s review here) and it’s put me in mind of other plays, and (being me) thinking of what would be in my Top 5.
Unlike other media, it was actually fairly simple to come up with the list. ?Again, as with other lists, they’re ones that have both stood the test of repeated consumption?and time. ?The ‘Desert Island’ test if you will… ? Something I may enjoy once or twice, may on the 10th or 20th watching become irritating. ?Also in contradiction, something I watched a long time ago might on repeat watching years later seem childish or shallow.
I’m very strict with such things: I take Top 5’s very seriously indeed 😉
“Words, words. They?re all we have to go on.”
From ‘mendacity’ to ‘question tennis’, from ‘friends, romans…’ to Italian maniacs… I love these plays, and?if I never saw another play in my life I would be sad, but I would still feel enriched with what I have seen.
Anyway, on to the list itself. ? I think the 5 plays have one main thing in common – word play and the love of language. ?Whether it’s used to confuse, to amuse, or to cut, or to teach, they all have a rich and enviable use of language. ?In my head I have a wonderful vein of words… unfortunately they don’t find their way to my mouth.. but that’s fine, they’re mine anyway, so I don’t have to share 😉
Accidental Death of an Anarchist – Dario Fo (1970)
I first saw this in the Dylan Thomas Theatre in Swansea when I was 14. I don’t remember who I was with, or why I went. I had to have?gone with someone, but I can’t for the life of me remember. ?I can picture the stage, the theatre itself, and even vaguely the programme – how strange I can remember those things, but not who I was with.
The theme of dirty politics, the absurdity of people, the helplessness of circumstance, the total lack of punishment for malfeasance, and how when even good (ish) people are faced with certain circumstances they do evil deeds..that absolutely resonated with the 14yr old me.
The last time I saw it performed live was at the Donmar with Rhys Ifans, and I was sadly /cynically (or as I call it ‘realistically’) unsurprised how the theme, the words, and even the politics were still relevant all these years later. ?The human race doesn’t?really change much ?eh…
The play is inspired by real events of a bombing and a death in police custody, and if you are even slightly interested, the whole background to the play and also Italian politics at the time, are absolutely fascinating. ?The more things change, the more they absolutely stay the same.
It’s a hard play?to get right, too much farce can negate the subject matter; ?too much reliance on the despair makes it boring and dry… it’s a fine balancing act. I’ve seen versions that just don’t work, but wow, the ones that do.. they?last for decades.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof – Tennessee Williams (1955)
With this, I came to the play via the film?- as?a big Paul Newman fan, and seeing the stunning looking Elizabeth Taylor I had to check it out. The film was done in 1958 and is of it’s time..as shown by the near absolute disappearance of the Skipper/Brick homosexual relationship providing the catalyst for the events of the film. ? I’ve since seen the ‘real’ version on stage a few?times since, and you could see more reality, more truth in those?versions. That there is more truth in a play about mendacity and lies and liars is in itself wonderful. ?So again, the richness of language to hide and distract is key.
The film of the play although less truthful, is so visually stunning, and Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor never more electric, that it’s hard not to love. So my compromise is reading?the words on the page with those visuals in my head… it works quite well 🙂
Julius Caesar – William Shakespeare
Shakespeare? ?Really? ?Yep,?I was that annoying person in English class who was positively gleeful at studying Shakespeare. ?Some I like, some I dislike but appreciate, some I think overrated, and some I absolutely love. ?Of them all Julius Caesar stands out.
I remember seeing it at the Grand Theatre in Swansea as part an English class outing in (I think) 1985. ?It was a modern dress version, and back then, the world was much smaller, so politics felt more remote and more unchangeable than these days. ?There were no online polls to trigger a debate at 10k signatures, it was more local, but felt much bigger than our small world seemed. ?It wasn’t that long after?the threat of a nuclear war not being?beyond the realms of possibility. The ‘duck and cover’ drills were actually supposed to be serious!? ?So with that background, a modern version of backstabbing politicians, the manipulation of the populous with words, and wars waged to score personal gain was quite interesting to say the least.
Since then I’ve seen multiple?stage versions, and also film versions and it’s the words every time.. I don’t have to even look at the stage or screen, the words paint such a picture that I can smell Rome and it’s countrymen. ?The power of words to turn a mob 180 degrees is a politician’s dream, and a voter’s caution.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, – Tom Stoppard (1966)
The sheer richness and cleverness of language in this play astounds me every time I read or see it. ?How someone can use an exchange so simple as the direction of the sun but have it convey so much more. Question tennis – brilliant. ?To explain why I love this play is hard, because the language I have is so insubstantial compared to Stoppard’s, that it seems an injustice to even try.
If you know Hamlet, then you can smile at the interactions/interruptions of that play, if you don’t, well you still enjoy it. ?If you believe they are dead/dying and this is their lives flashing before their eyes, or if you think the point is that they are bit players in another’s life(play) and so don’t have anything but that play’s scraps.. ?it’s all there to relish.
I’ve only seen this on stage once in person, in 1995,?mainly because it’s not actually been produced that many times. ?But the film version, written and directed by it’s author, is one of my favourite films..so there’s that.
Waiting for Godot – Samuel Beckett (1953)
and finally we come to Godot. ?I’ve seen this a couple of times on the stage, but my absolute favourite was Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart’s version in the Kings Theatre Edinburgh 2009. ?I was living in Amsterdam at the time, but made trips back home every now and again, and this was the sole?reason for one of those trips. ?I probably don’t need to rave about their performances because there’s no need, as obviously they were absolutely perfection itself.
The Author apparently said “Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can’t make out.” ?I think that’s the beauty of the play, it’s simple but complicated at the same time. ?You can look at one layer and be happy or look at 20 layers and still enjoy it. ?I liken it to how I view baseball: ?you can look at it as?1 guy trying to hit a ball thrown by another guy and score more runs; ?or it’s about why a righty pitcher throws a low inside 3-2 changeup because the lefty hitter tends to hit fastballs out of the park and there is a guy at 1st who steals bases…?This play to me is the same… it’s about 2 guys passing the time, or it’s about philosophy, religion, love, politics…or none of those things.
The beauty of language…a single word is simple, put a whole set together and you have a world of imagination 😉