Hamlet’s secondary characters take centre stage

An inside look at Motyer-Fancy’s first show of the season

What do you get when you cross coin-tossing, a travelling troupe of gender-bending actors and Hamlet? You get Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, running next week at the Motyer-Fancy Theatre.

In anticipation of opening night, I sat down with Decima Mitchell, the show’s director and Motyer-Fancy’s resident designer, to learn more about the production.

“I have loved this show since I first read it a number of years ago,” Mitchell said. When the opportunity arose to direct, the choice was easy. She said, “I had this play in the back of my mind, and I thought, ‘Wow, I really want to see this thing in production.’ ”

Stoppard’s script follows Hamlet’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – also called R and G by Mitchell and her cast – as they attempt to make sense of their situation. While Hamlet plots revenge against the king, the men interact with the court of Denmark to figure out the motives of those around them, the schemes they’ve been roped into and their identities.

“They seem not to know why they’re there other than the superficial summons to come because the king wants their help,” said Mitchell. “As soon as they pull away from those situations, it’s ‘Whoa. Who are we? What are we doing? Do you know? I don’t know. I can’t remember. Can you remember?’ ”

This confusion, present in R and G’s first appearance in Hamlet, is amplified in Stoppard’s script and Mitchell’s casting decisions. “The king is always confusing them, Hamlet confuses them. They are confused, they answer to each other’s names. That confusion about identity is expanded triple-fold when you put three pairs of actors in that role,” said Mitchell.

I was able to experience this confusion for myself during the cast’s first full run-through of the show. Kylie Fox and Thunder Nevin began, wearing hats to distinguish Rosencrantz from Guildenstern as they flipped coins and pondered philosophy. They passed their hats mid-scene to Jake Marchand and Molly Stott, a pair that amplified the confusion and asked large questions. The third pair, Gabriel Christie and Carol Schumaker, were frantic and aggressive, especially in comparison to their predecessors.

These pairs might be comprised of individual actors, but they function as units. Another Rosencrantz or Guildenstern has occasionally stepped in to read alongside a different partner in the case of absences. This has truly highlighted each pair’s chemistry for Mitchell.

“It probably started with casting, but they’re building relationships with that particular R and that particular G and when somebody else steps in it changes and it doesn’t seem as organic for some reason,” she said.

Another element Mitchell is particularly excited for is the group of tragedians. While they are typically more reserved in Hamlet, they appear in Mitchell’s production as “a really strongly choreographed group.” These actors non-verbally confront Rosencrantz and Guildenstern with the concept of death, while also providing metatheatrical commentary.

“One of our tragedians, Jane Rempel, is a very talented movement person. She’s had years and years of dance training and so she agreed to do the choreography for the tragedians,” Mitchell said. At the rehearsal I attended, Rempel led them as they collectively honed “dancey deaths.”

The show is certainly comedic, but Mitchell describes it as “a deep and profound tragedy – the tragedy of living.” While the show has Elizabethan roots, “it’s also very true to our lives. We mix our stories up and we don’t always know what we’re doing or why we’re doing it, so it’s a kind of distillation of the confusion of living, basically.”


Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead runs Oct. 25-28 at the Motyer-Fancy Theatre.

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