Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead - London

Tom Stoppard retells Shakespeare's classic 'Hamlet'.

Former History Boy Samuel Barnett on His London Stage Return in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead

Samuel Barnett will be long remembered for playing the heartsick student Posner in Alan Bennett’s Tony-winning The History Boys, a performance that earned him a 2006 Best Featured Actor Tony nomination. Five years later, the perennially boyish Barnett, now 31, is co-starring with fellow History Boy Jamie Parker in Trevor Nunn’s West End revival of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Tom Stoppard’s career-making existential riff on Hamlet. caught up with the personable actor prior to a Monday night performance of his second-ever West End show.

How does it feel to see your name and face in such a huge display outside the Theatre Royal Haymarket?
It is completely thrilling, like a childhood dream come true, really! Someone said, “You’re going to have your name up in lights,” but this is better: It’s a big picture of my head poking up out of a barrel, and there’s a banner either side [of the theater], so there are two of them. And it’s just such a great image: The whole barrel image is iconic to begin with.

Yes, like something out of Beckett. You should ask the management if you can keep one of the banners once the run finishes late-August.
Who’s got a wall big enough? [Laughs.] I’d have to get a bigger flat! As it is, I’m in a dressing room that’s larger than my flat, the one [Sir John] Gielgud lived in during the war [World War II] with its own bathroom and kitchen. It’s amazing to go up and down the stairs and see the posters of all the shows that have played here. You just think, Wow! I feel incredibly lucky to be playing on this stage in one of the most beautiful theaters in London.

How well did you know Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead before you came to do it?
When I first read it, I was quite overwhelmed because it is so dense, but Trevor [Nunn] is an absolute master with the language and he helped me to understand everything. And of course we can’t play the history of the play; we have to approach it as a fresh text to see what we can get out of it. To me, it’s about two characters trying to discover who they are, and that’s timeless. And to think that Tom Stoppard wrote it when he was 24. That’s extraordinary!

It’s fascinating that R&G is a young man’s play, and yet it’s largely given over to issues of mortality and death.
Yes. I’ve got that speech where Rosencrantz says “whatever became of the moment where one first knew about death.” In a way, it’s as teenagers and then in our 20s and 30s when you start asking those questions. I do remember at 13 being suddenly overwhelmed by the idea that one day I actually wouldn’t exist any more, so I guess Tom was grappling with those ideas that were in my head and in many others, as well.

Was it intimidating having someone of Stoppard’s intellect around during rehearsals?
You think of Tom being highbrow and a bit scary, and he is exactly the opposite: He’s like the best dad or granddad you could ever have. He never ever imposed himself on what we were doing and just seemed so thrilled that we were doing his play. He’s the most gentle, unassuming, beautiful man, and so supportive. People say, “I didn’t realize it was such a sad play,” but that’s because Tom has got the most amazing heart, and that’s what Trevor has brought out in this production.

Were you and Jamie hired as a team, given how well you know each other after your shared success in The History Boys?
Jamie and I were both at a play one day at the National Theatre, and he said to me, “I’ve got an audition for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” and I said, “I’d like to go in for that.” Afterwards, as I had literally come out of the matinee, there was a message from my agent saying, “You’ve got an audition for R&G!” [Laughs.] Jamie told me that they were seeing people in pairs, so Trevor saw Jamie with other people, and he wanted to see me with other people. In the end, we got offered it, I suppose, because we have a shorthand—an easy intimacy and trust and chemistry that come from spending three years together on The History Boys. We didn’t have to take weeks in rehearsal getting to know one another.

The joke in Hamlet is that Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are virtually interchangeable, but they don’t seem to be as you and Jamie play them.
What’s interesting is that each of them takes the lead at different points in driving the play forward. It’s often said that Guildenstern is more highly strung and panicked and worried and Rosencrantz is more easygoing, but there are times when I’m much more highly strung and anxious and Jamie is completely laid back, so you just have to trust the process. It’s like stepping out on stage a blank canvas and slowly the picture gets painted—filled up—throughout the evening.

How do you look back on the singular experience of doing The History Boys?
Where I am now, I really feel as if it has been one continuous line back to that and even further, given that I’ve now been in London 13 years; I was 18 when I arrived to go to drama school. I saw James [Corden] yesterday in a play [One Man, Two Guvnors at the National], which I adored, and I keep up with what Dom [Dominic Cooper] has been doing, and all of them, really. I’ve seen each of them every year since. That production was a real gift. I think we always knew we’d be friends for life.

You sang a bit, memorably so, in The History Boys, and did Sunday night show, Notes from New York, several years ago that showed your voice off to fine advantage. Why, then, haven’t you done more musicals?
It’s not by choice that I haven’t! [Laughs.] I audition for two or three musicals a year, but I just never get them. It’s probably to do with the parts I’m put up for and the fact that I am never going to be the lead actor in a musical where they need a six-foot, good-looking, built, leading man tenor. I need slightly more of a character part. Also, I’m not that interested in singing for the sake of singing; the acting for me has to come first, and if I can’t act the song, then I’m not going to service the song.

But you would happily accept if the right musical came along?
Absolutely! I was Gabey in On the Town at drama school, which was great because I dance as well. I am dying to do a musical; I would love to do a musical. Tell your readers I really want to do one!