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Daniel Radcliffe (left) and Joshua McGuire in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” (©Manuel Harlan)



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 . . .”

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