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The spectacularly successful debut of TOM STOPPARD‘S 25-year career, Rosencrantz And Guildenstem Are Dead is released here
hen Tom Stoppard’s debut feature Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead was awarded the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival last year, he was as surprised as anyone. ‘We really didn‘t expect it,‘ he recalls. ‘What was really gratifying was initially getting into the informal group of six or seven from which the winner would be chosen, the ones people talked about. To hear “GoodFelIas, Mr And Mrs Bridge, Rosencrantz . . After that it was down to irrationality: basically who was on the jury. We won partly because Gore Vidal was chairman, and he was very keen on us. I would have been completely unsurprised had, say GoodFellas won.‘ Beating out such strong opposition is indeed a triumph; even more so considering Stoppard‘s position as a cornerstone ofthe British theatrical establishment. It is doubly ironic that his own adaptation of the very play that shot him to stardom some 25 years ago is still providing him with success and. simultaneously, some measure of artistic rehabilitation. Plans were afoot as long ago as 1968, only two years after the first performance of Rosencrantz on the Edinburgh Fringe. ‘MGM bought the film rights after the National run,‘ says Stoppard, ‘and I did a rather bad script for John Boorman. Things have changed now. In 1968 I was concerned fundamentally with “protecting” the play; in 1988 that was the last thing on my mind. I wasn‘t interested in
defending the play any more.‘ The impact of the play‘s first production
was immense, albeit within the limited and ‘ limiting context of the British stage. The
‘angry‘ revolution had come and gone; ofthe 50$ generation only Pinter retained much 3 creative credibility. With Rosencrantz, < Stoppard offered an easily digestible 3 concoction of teasing theatrical ideas: I pulling onto centre stage two marginal
this week in an award-winning film version, re-written and directed by the playwright himself. Andrew Pulver asked the Czechoslovakian-born writer about the stage, the screen and eastern Europe.
characters from Shakespeare‘s Hamlet and using Shakespeare‘s own stage devices to place a peculiarly British sense oftheatrical self-consciousness in a broader, more modern comic framework. Celluloid can‘t hope to do much more than re-present the same agile intelligence.
What results is a film altered little in substance, but much on the surface. ‘There is a boring idea,‘ says Stoppard, ‘about film being image; theatre being words. It‘s a
“ Rosencrantz isthe iirstlilm I’ve written from something of my own, which is why directing it seemed a natural continuation
simple distinction which has some truth. I was aware in theatre of the energy being carried by the words. Someone told me in the film I‘d left out nearly halfthe lines. I didn‘t notice — it didn‘t feel like savagery. I was interested in adding to the film elements of comedy which didn‘t depend on language — in theatre you can‘t change the frame: you‘re sitting looking at a long shot. As soon as you can change the frame. let the audience look at someone‘s little finger, if that becomes important, you‘ve introduced a whole new strand ofinformation.‘
In the two title roles, Gary Oldman and Tim Roth take on a double-act relationship as they move around Elsinore, eavesdropping on the Shakespearian action, headed conventionally by Iain Glen.
Stoppard‘s own film career is, to say the
least. a dark horse. A screenwriter on a number of projects including Terry Gilliam‘s Brazi1.Spielberg‘s Empire Of The Sun and more recently Schepisi‘s The Russia House, his film persona is detached. almost anonymous, compared to his theatrical one. ‘My film-writing career is like having a ghost. really. slightly to my left.‘ he says. ‘It‘s a job of work. with very little to do with writing as I understand it when I write plays, because the story has been invented by someone else. It‘s a technical job, always circumscribed by John Ie Carré, Priestley or whatever. Rosencrantz is the first film I‘ve written from something of my own, which is why directing it seemed a natural continuation — certainly that wouldn‘t have been the case with The Russia House. for example.‘
The film was shot in Yugoslavia, and Stoppard‘s reorganisation of the play‘s narrative allowed a group of Yugoslavian actors — ‘a wonderful piece of luck‘ — practically to steal the show with their wordless performance of the Hamlet story. ‘Rightly or wrongly.‘ he says, ‘I felt a cinema audience would need more clueing in to Shakespeare, so I invented a scene where the players rehearse their play, and because it has the same story as Hamlet. it fills the audience in on what‘s happening in Elsinore.‘ Stoppard was hardly likely to bargain for Zeffirelli‘s Hamlet being released only a few weeks beforehand. but no matter. It remains probably the film‘s most successful passage.
Stoppard‘s own close engagement with Eastern Europe (he was born Tomas Straussler in Czechoslovakia) has been a source of creativity in earlier times. principally the television films Squaring The Circle (dealing with martial law in Poland) and Professional Foul (dedicated to, and essentially about, Vaclav Havel). ‘In a rather shameful way one gets very insulated when shooting a film. We were in Croatia most ofthe time, but one ofthe castles we shot in was just over the border in Slovenia; you would be on a bus for 40 minutes and people were speaking a different language. I recently spent a weekend in Prague — they are really up against it economically, and now there is the Slovakian problem. Under the Communists all separatist feeling was suppressed, but now the hinge in Czechoslovakia is not holding. When you put a country together artificially. I suppose it‘s only a matter of time before it starts to unglue.‘
Even as the unsolved problems that precipitated World War One raise their head, Stoppard can afford to relax and enjoy himself. Like Mike Leigh, David Hare, Kenneth Branagh even, the silver screen is proving more alluring than the smell ofthe greasepaint, or even the television studio. ‘Ideally, I‘d like to write a film good enough and cheap enough for someone to trust me to direct it. I‘ve always been someone who‘s been vaguely trying to write his next play-
for the first time I‘ve been thinking ofmy
next play as a screenplay rather than a stage play.‘
Rosencrantz And (iuildenstern A re Dead opens at Glasgow Film Theatre and Edinburgh Filmhouse on Fri24 May.