National Theatre, London
Written by Jack Thorne
Directed by Sam Mendes
Jack Thorne’s new play is one of those rare events, fusing the strongest of stories with an exquisite script, delivered by a riveting troupe of actors. The Motive and the Cue takes an ingenious delve into the rehearsals that underscored Richard Burton’s 1964 Hamlet on Broadway, a production that was directed by Sir John Gielgud.
Burton was at the peak of his hell-raising career, while Sir John, arguably the finest Shakespearean performer of his generation was already past his zenith. Johnny Flynn and Mark Gatiss play Burton and Gielgud respectively and their take on both of these giants is nothing short of remarkable. Vocally and physically the actors capture the instantly recognisable characteristics of both men: Gatiss bringing a balding mellifluous wisdom to the theatrical knight, while Flynn wields a louche, perfectly pitched swagger that, with just a hint of Welsh tonality, nails Burton’s distinctive presence.
Thorne’s genius is in crafting the theatrical history of what was to become Broadway’s longest-running Hamlet ever, into a standalone dramatic gem. Tuppence Middleton plays Elizabeth Taylor - 1964 saw the Burton / Taylor marriage at its most passionate, remember that their legendary Cleopatra movie had only opened the year before - and her take on the actress, describing Burton as “the finest actor she ever went to bed with”, is inspired. Middleton's Taylor understands the Welshman’s complex roots, his impoverished childhood, nurturing and nourishing his talent. In her final scene, clad literally in fur coat and no knickers, Middleton defines the smouldering, beautiful complexity of one of the twentieth century’s most compelling actresses.
With an acute perception Thorne brings to the fore both Burton's and Gielgud's troubled pasts. Gielgud contemplating the waning of his career at the end of act one, in which having coaxed the recalcitrant Burton in Hamlet’s “Speak the speech I pray you” speech to the Players, then, solo, and as a monologue, recites the speech himself, creating a moment that evolves into one of the most heart-rending and tender scenes penned in recent years. Gatiss defines Gielgud’s melancholy with a profound and measured depth, his gauche second-act encounter with a rent boy proving equally tender.
Flynn too offers a glimpse into the alcohol-fuelled complexities that contributed to Burton’s gargantuan stage presence. Thorne’s script and Sam Mendes’ assured direction offer up a fascinating glimpse of both men’s vulnerabilities.
There’s excellence throughout the cast, with Janie Dee as Eileen Herlie (the production’s Gertrude) and Allan Corduner as Hume Cronyn (Polonius) both in sparkling form. Rarely has Hamlet’s closet scene been played with such credible hilarity. Es Devlin works her usual magic in the play’s scenic design, with scenes ingeniously changing behind the opening and closing aperture of the Lyttleton’s curtain. Credit too to Charmian Hoare, the production's dialect coach, for capturing such aural perfection from the leading performers.
The Motive and the Cue is new writing at its finest, built upon the most fascinating of stories. It is an unmissable night of theatre.
Runs until 15th July
Photo credit: Mark Douet