Fifty years on, Tom Stoppard's absurdist tragicomedy is back in the theatre where it had its professional premiere, and still just as dazzlingly virtuosic. If some of its gags, musings and metatheatrical tricks have since become overfamiliar through imitation, that's surely testament to its enduring influence.

Appropriately enough for a play centred on Hamlet side characters Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, big-name draw Daniel Radcliffe is rather overshadowed by sparring partner Joshua McGuire, who in turn battles for the spotlight with David Haig, in a delectable supporting turn.

Haig's Player is part tattooed, piratical pimp, part smooth-talking used car salesman - an oily, thuggish chancer trying to outrun desperation. Whether cupping and stroking the unwilling bodies of his ragtag Pierrot troupe - who provide mournful music and even more mournful coitus - or rattling through available stage deaths like a market trader listing veg, he's a world-weary pro just as haunted by mortality as the existentialist debaters.

Radcliffe and McGuire excel at Stoppard's verbal tennis, finding a nice lived-in rhythm for the quick-fire, increasingly panic-laced exchanges. Radcliffe's junior partner is most comfortable in the world of games, following instruction in eager Labrador fashion, and plaintively confused outside of them. However, his placidity can slide into vacancy, particularly when called upon to react rather than speak.

McGuire, in contrast, exhibits a feverishly overactive mind, constantly seeking the reassurance of reason and certainty. He grins and swaggers in a rare moment of finding it, then immediately second-guesses and undercuts himself. Gnawing anxiety is projected onto others, his dealings with the players sometimes petulantly cruel, but that yearning for answers is always poignantly apparent.

David Leveaux's production is generally well-paced, though slacker in the second half, and wittily transitions between the aimless duo and impassioned world of Hamlet. The latter comes courtesy of deliberately mannered turns from Wil Johnson, Marianne Oldham, William Chubb and in particular Luke Mullins as an affected, crafty Hamlet.

Anna Fleischle's design leans into Stoppard's toying with theatrical artifice: painted skies and a curtain festooned with the fateful ship. The Hamlet crew are imperially attired - Gertrude's Elizabeth I-esque exaggerated silhouette is especially striking - while the down-at-heel actors are a ghostly imitation of this reality: chalk-white faces and tattered cast-offs. The Player's proclamation that he is always in costume calls attention not just to his less-than-merry band's apparel, but the court and our wandering pair as well.

Bouncing from slapstick and silly runners to intellectual fireworks and profound philosophy, Stoppard's youthful piece - which has the audacity to square off against both Shakespeare and Beckett - is still an extraordinary accomplishment, and its staring into the void feels fitting for our current age of anxiety. "Times being what they are" is The Player's bleak refrain, and there's more than a hint of fake news in the observation that "everything has to be taken on trust; truth is only that which is taken to be true".

In the final moments, the production finds real pathos as this notably boyish Rosencrantz and Guildenstern grapple with a loss of free will that's led them to a seemingly inevitable end - a final, unknowable exit.

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at Old Vic until 29 April, with an NT Live cinema broadcast on 20 April

Picture credit: Manuel Harlan

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From This Author Marianka Swain

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