In 1964, acting legends Peter O’Toole and Richard Burton both wanted to “give their Hamlet”. They both wanted to be directed by another Hamlet.
This play is to be, or not to be, missed
A coin flip and O’Toole got Lawrence Olivier. Burton got John Gielgud. And we get The Motive and the Cue, now at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton.
It’s a true(ish) look at Burton and Gielgud’s tense(ish) relationship as it developed during rehearsals for a play now remembered more for being Broadway’s longest-running than for its central performance.
The play’s title comes from Hamlet. The motive is the reason, the cue is the passion. If you knew that already, this inward-looking play is likely to be right up your street.
If you didn’t, it’s one that may be worth avoiding.
Burton was a celebrity at the height of his career. Gielgud was an actor looking back at his. Burton had sexuality, personality, and the adoration of screaming fans. Gielgud had subtlety, precision, and the appreciation of respectful peers.
Gielgud may have been the director – with hundreds of Hamlets behind him – but Burton was the box office draw. And his boss.
This meeting of opposing views, approaches, and minds, hints at explosive scenes to come, of power clashing and wits battling.
They never quite materialise. There are sparks that never catch fire. There are skirmishes that quickly deflate. There are disagreements, dismissed by a passionless mutual respect.
It’s like seeing the edited highlights of a story which has had the real drama redacted by overzealous estates.
It promises fireworks. It delivers squibs.
Of limited interest.
Writer Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, National Treasure, This is England) has drawn from several sources to write this fictionalised version of events. There are two written accounts published by other members of the company. There’s Gielgud’s own diaries from the time. And we mustn’t forget Shakespeare himself. Thorne certainly doesn’t.
Huge chunks of Hamlet are delivered, without context, verbatim. As this play is set during rehearsals of that play, you would expect to hear the odd line here or there. It makes sense for quotes to be used to aide development of the play we are watching.
At times, that does happen here. Performances are halted by Gielgud and provide insight into a directorial style that seemed often to be without direction. It helps us understand the frustration building in Burton and the rest of the cast. But this manner of direction – Gielgud offering little more than a ‘very good’ – means the balance is often 80% Shakespeare, 20% Thorne.
Other times, scenes just play out of themselves. We watch actors playing actors playing characters. It is of limited interest.
If you know Hamlet well, it may be like seeing some old friends pop up unexpectedly. If you don’t know Hamlet at all, you may struggle to see the point.
An unreachable bar.
This production sees the welcome return to the National Theatre of director Sam Mendes. Mendes was last here with The Lehman Trilogy, currently in its second West End run at the Gillian Lynne Theatre.
Mendes’ talent leads to high expectations. His is an almost unreachable bar. As he proves here, where he seems to have particular struggles whenever a scene involves more than two actors.
Group parties in Dick and Liz’s hotel room are horribly clunky. Entrances and exits seem blocked and marked. Positions are motivated too heavily by sightlines and taken with too much precision.
Characters interject the odd line with a belief that suggests lines were shared out equally rather than necessarily. Conversations feel forced, delivered as though reacting to an off-stage prompt.
And don’t get me started on the cringey renditions of ‘For he’s a jolly good fellow.’
Impersonation and representation.
Playing real people from recent history is an unenviable task. Everyone thinks they know what these people were like, even though it’s likely we only ever saw them on screen.
It’s impossible to strike a balance between impersonation and representation that will satisfy the expectations of everyone watching.
If you expect Elizabeth Taylor to be domineering, overpowering all with her sexuality, you will be disappointed by Tuppence Middleton. But she gives a performance that radiates with fun and naughtiness. Her few appearances light up the stage. You only wish she appeared more often.
If your Richard Burton comes with a specific level of gravel in his voice, you may think this can’t be matched by Johnny Flynn’s timbre. But his performance is both powerful and vulnerable. His swaggers positively ooze sex and are enough to make the driest of deserts moist.
It’s doubtful that anyone could expect more from Mark Gatiss’s John Gielgud. Fey mannerisms and a delicate musicality to his voice show a man for whom sexlessness disguised sexuality.
Arguably this is just a wispier, more RP version of Gatiss’s recent portrayal of Larry Grayson in ITVX’s Nolly. That’s no bad thing. Gatiss is clearly the go-to for repressed gay person of yesteryear casting. I can’t be the only one to anticipate what he does with (working title) “The Story of John: Inman Inmen”, which must surely be in development somewhere.
Put aside your opinion on likenesses and there are some powerful moments of pure acting to behold. On many occasions, we are truly drawn into each word being spoken. The cliché of a crowd reacting as one is made real. A pin dropping would sound like the promised explosive.
A Filmic Quality.
Considering the play’s strong theatrical bent, an episodic structure and grand three-set design give it a filmic quality. Lighting by Jon Clark and set by Es Devlin work together to create distinct settings heavily drawing on colour.
Scenes alternate between – for the most part – Burton and Taylor’s rich red honeymoon hotel suite, Gielgud’s cold blue basic digs, and a stark white rehearsal room. Shockingly, there isn’t a glass box in sight.
Between scenes a faux onstage curtain falls and displays the rehearsal day and a Hamlet quote. I assume each quote bears relevance to the scene that follows. I stopped playing that game of Shakespeare bingo when I realised it felt too smug.
There are many scene changes. I guess around 20. Mini scenes – often from Hamlet, usually not plot developing – are acted out downstage of the curtain. They soon become laborious as their repetitiveness becomes expected.
Their real purpose is clearly functional. Necessary to fill the time each complex set change requires. This impact of elaborate sets at the National is starting to get boring.
To be or not to be?
There’s an air of regality about The Motive and the Cue that seems fitting, given the events taking place at the nearby Mall. It’s partly due to the gathering of theatrical royalty, both present and past. And it’s partly down to the scale and grandeur with which it is delivered.
Watching a real rehearsal process involving real stars will be enough to give this show its appeal to many.
Actors, directors, designers, technicians, stage hands… and critics… are likely to lap up its self-referentiality. Indeed, the run is already sold out until late June.
But like the coronation, it won’t be for everyone.
Those for whom theatre is an occasional treat, enjoyed fully wrapped and packaged, may find the in-jokes a little too insular and wonder what all the fuss is about.
Which group you see yourself in should help you decide whether, for you, this play is to be, or not to be, missed.