I'd been looking forward to sitting down to enjoy this very definition of 'meta-', and the Oxford Playhouse 17|25 Young Company were wonderfully able to bring it to life. On this 50th anniversary year of the Tom Stoppard play's original performance, it was presented in an ensemble version which allowed nine young actors to portray the three main characters. On this 400th anniversary year of Shakespeare's death, his great Dane Hamlet appears in a minor role - here, the previously incidental parts of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, his childhood friends, are up front. Actually, that's spatially misleading - the audience is actually brought into the netherworld that exists 'in the wings' of the original play. So instead of finding our heroes rehearsing, they're in total ontological instability and up to their elbows in guesswork as to their own whereabouts, motives and identities.
It is, of course, more fun than that. The comedy is allowed to shine out, occasionally pantomimishly milked (in keeping with the style of the taste-free Tragedians) but in the main handled with professionalism. So our initial Rosencrantz is superhumanly chipper, succeeded in the second act by a Rosencrantz with a magnetic, populist comic sensibility - the crowd was hanging on Caitlin Carrick-Varty's every word and gesture.
Indeed the ensemble decision would be unsettling in many plays. In this one, when each titular duo impressed me, I was worried about losing them in the forthcoming act. However each changeover brought new delights, and a different chemistry to the previous. Act 3's Guildenstern (Adam Diaper) let his bemusement ignite into a powerless rage (I was close enough to see the spotlit spray of his every plosive). To this relative theatre-newbie, it brought to mind Terry Gilliam's The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, in both its creative use of multiple actors per role and its band of travelling 'players'.