Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead - staged at both the Keble O’Reilly and the Oxford Playhouse in early 2016 - was an inescapable presence this year in Oxford drama. The play that kick-started Stoppard’s career is now a classic of postmodern theatre, staged in theatres around the world, and fascinating audiences everywhere.
As the saying goes, however, all that glitters is not gold: even Stoppard’s most famous play wasn’t immediately recognised for the masterpiece it is. Initially optioned (and later passed over) by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and turned down by the Royal Court, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead was taken to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 1966 by the Oxford Theatre Group, two years after Stoppard began the script. The intuition of Oxford director Frank Hauser, then reviving the Oxford Playhouse, proved spot-on: the play received an enthusiastic review in The Observer and was promptly catapulted onto the national stage.
This year's productions thus marked the golden jubilee of one of Oxford’s best-loved theatrical miracles. In the 2015-16 academic year, Stoppard was Humanitas Visiting Professor of Drama at Oxford University, and delivered a lectio magistralis on 18 May 2016, followed by a Q&A the next day. At the Q&A, Hermione Lee started off her interview from the beginning of his career, asking him about the first performance of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Stoppard acknowledged it as the turning-point in his life, although he specified that his first thoughts were very pragmatic at the time: “the instant feeling was that I didn’t have to scrabble to pay the rent […] and then life became a bit too exciting, in the sense that the play was then taken up by an American producer to do in New York […] it was all a bit unreal, really”.
“The instant feeling was that I didn’t have to scrabble to pay the rent […] and then life became a bit too exciting, in the sense that the play was then taken up by an American producer to do in New York […] it was all a bit unreal, really”
Just as it has done for the last 50 years, this city will continue to foster new writing, and keep drama, in Oxford and everywhere, more alive than ever.