After the first night of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead at the National Theatre in 1967, Tom Stoppard awoke and found himself famous. It's still a delightful shock, every few years, to be reminded how brilliant and engaging this play remains, and Trevor Nunn's Chichester revival, moving smartly to London, is an unalloyed pleasure.
The tale of Shakespeare's supernumeraries working out their destiny while the play proper sweeps by is itself a metaphorical elaboration on Waiting for Godot, where the tramps are abandoned in the void.
Samuel Barnett and Jamie Parker as Stoppard's duo are picked out in spotlights, tossing coins by an old gnarled tree. They have been sent for on a spying mission that backfires when letters are switched and they find themselves peering down the end of a barrel. They find more barrels, and hide in them, on the boat bound for England.
The Players are on board, too, dogging them with their insistence that they are all part of the same spectacle. In a lesser writer than Stoppard, the self-conscious Pirandellian absurdity might be trying, but the dialogue remains fresh and lively, curling round philosophical ideas, great theatrical jokes and thoughts of death with endless ingenuity.
While Hamlet (Jack Hawkins) contemplates his condition inaudibly upstage, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are sucked into their own sense of mortality – "Eternity is a terrible thought; I mean, where is it going to end?" What started as a dramatic flourish of speech and rhetoric intensifies into a comic treatise on life in a box.
Tim Curry was ideally, perhaps obviously, cast as the First Player but has withdrawn with a chest infection, and Chris Andrew Mellon does a pretty good job in his stead without shaking us by the ears.
The really clever thing is the unexpected casting of a highly strung Rosencrantz and a dogged, steady Guildenstern; it's usually the other way round, but Barnett and Parker reverse expectations all the way through, retaining character while seeming to be interchangeable, as others think of them anyway. "Consistency is all I ask," says one; "Immortality is all I seek," the other. Impossible requests, both.
To 11 June (01243 781312); then Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London SW1 (0845 481 1870) 16 June to 20 AugustReuse content