You needed to be there: a (p)review of NT Live’s The Motive and the Cue as Gielgud and Burton clash in 1964

United KingdomUnited Kingdom NT Live – Jack Thorne’s The Motive and the Cue: Currently on at London’s Noel Coward Theatre until 23.3.2024. It was filmed live in 2023 (directed by Matthew Amos) at London’s Lyttleton Theatre and it will be available in cinemas from 21.3.2024. (JPr)

The Motive and the Cue © Mark Douet

Director Sam Mendes recalled how many years ago when he was living in New York how he had ‘stumbled on a book by an actor called Richard Stearne entitled John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet. Being a theatre nerd, I thought this is a report, a verbatim report, of a rehearsal period. Then it seemed to be a story [but] years later, I came across a second book called Letter from an Actor by William Redfield. And that’s a much more interesting book about exactly the same production of Hamlet in 1964, directed by John Gielgud. But in this book it’s clear that it was not a particularly happy process. There was a good deal of friction between the director and the actor partly because they came from such different backgrounds. You had a modernist and a classicist. You had someone who, in a sense, was the forgotten man at that time, Gielgud, and the biggest, you know, movie star in the world, Richard Burton. I was a big fan of Jack[Thorne] … and I pitched this idea to him.’ Jack Thorne added how he was ‘just desperate to write about the theatre. And so trying to find a way to celebrate theatre through these people and through an incredibly raw process, and through that, through the unlocking of Hamlet, that I think became the secret of how we did the play.’

The Evening Standard award-winning best new play was filmed live during its sold-out run at the Royal National Theatre and began its limited run in the West End at the Noel Coward Theatre (where Sir John Gielgud had himself performed) in December 2023 and it ends there on 23 March. Thanks to National Theatre Live it can be seen in cinemas from 21 March where you can experience this play-about-the-play for yourself.

It is 1964 and we a watching Gielgud leading a read-through of a Broadway production of Hamlet that will be a stripped-back affair and performed as it was a final rehearsal with the actors in their own clothes. This was not just a return for Burton to the stage but came soon after his (first) marriage to Elizabeth Taylor; their romance having begun on the set of the infamous 1963 Cleopatra. The action – such as it is – swaps between the rather beige classroom-like rehearsal room with those involved dressed in period blandness (though Burton will eventually source a stylish black ensemble for his ‘costume’) and the luxurious bouquet-filled Barbie-pink hotel suite for the Burton-Taylors. There we find a bored Liz – just there to support her latest husband – sashaying about in satin negligees and elegant gowns (all costumes by Katrina Lindsay) and we get glimpses of the champagne- and drug-fuelled hedonistic lifestyle that was to ruin both of their careers. All this will appear from behind a black front drop which opens up like the shutter of old-style camera; on it we will see projected how the 25 days of the rehearsals are passing and also between scenes the actors will step out from the-play-about-the-play to play the play!

I am shying away from a blow-by-blow account of the play because I don’t want to put anyone off going to see it for themselves. You will definitely get more from this the more you know about theatre, the rehearsal process and Hollywood of the Golden Age. (Though in a way, this may also hamper this enjoyment as I will hint at below.) Although it’s a large cast the play is merely a two-hander and a clash of egos and insecurities. Gielgud was old-school and first played Hamlet when in 1930 when he was 26 and was bitter and haunted not only by his own ghost, Laurence Oliver, and his Oscar-winning Hamlet film and now as the director of the National Theatre, but also by his homosexuality at the time when it was illegal. In the rehearsal room Gielgud clashes with Burton’s increasingly angry Richard-come-lately who has apparently embellished his upbringing in Wales and has an increasing dependence on drink. He has a reluctance to take direction, however it was only thanks to Burton that Gielgud was involved in the project.

The plays gathers momentum in the second half as Gielgud and Burton reach their anticipated rapprochement. And we get to understand the importance of Hamlet’s line ‘the motive and the cue’ to what we have seen; realising how inseparable the actor is from the character he is portraying. Through Burton’s actions and deeds Hamlet becomes his Hamlet and as Gielgud concludes, ‘That is a Hamlet I have never seen’ and finally, ‘I’ve done all I can for you. Now you must forget about me. The play is yours.’ Cue (!) an excerpt from Handel’s Zadok the Priest as the final music of Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s rather odd – almost subliminal – soundtrack which also features Bach and jazz.

There is a strong supporting cast (though with variable accents) who do well with their largely underwritten roles. Luke Norris is best of them as William Redfield who believes he is overqualified to play Guildenstern but wants the opportunity to feature in something great.

Mark Gatiss (Sir John Gielgud) and Johnny Flynn (Richard Burton) © Mark Douet

As for Mark Gatiss, Johnny Flynn and Tuppence Middleton I had the same reaction as I did starting and not finishing the recent ITVX series Archie about Cary Grant: I did not expect Jason Isaacs, Ian McNiece, Lily Travers to become Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly but at least I needed them to have seen more than, seemingly, a few minutes footage (if any?) of those they were portraying. They – and several others in the Archie cast – clearly had never done any real preparation about their characters. So, what about The Motive and the Cue’s Gielgud, Burton and Taylor? Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn are not well-served by the few seconds of silent black-and-white footage of the real John Gielgud and Richard Burton during the interval film with Sam Mendes and Jack Thorne. Both Gatiss and Flynn show their characters fighting their respective demons, and Gatiss indeed has a certain waspishness and haughty mien allied to an acid wit but the Gatiss twinkle in Gielgud’s eyes is at odds with him being a significantly sadder man. Flynn replicates only intermittently – what I have seen described as – the arrogant Burton’s ‘rumbling Welsh burr’, however, in 1964 his face was already suffering from his dissolute lifestyle and Flynn was too handsome. Tuppence Middleton, for me, looked more like Vivien Leigh than Liz Taylor, I suspect there was much more fragility and self-doubt to Taylor than Middleton lets through; otherwise, why was she also so dependent on drinks and drugs.

Nevertheless, there are enough good performances, one-liners and other in-jokes, as well as all the other film and theatre references in The Motive and the Cue to make your trip to the cinema worthwhile. But watching actors playing actors playing characters in Hamlet will actually make you wish you had been sitting in New York City’s Lunt-Fontanne Theatre for the first night of its record-breaking run in 1964.

Jim Pritchard

For more about National Theatre Live click here.

Writer – Jack Thorne
Director – Sam Mendes
Composer – Benjamin Kwasi Burrell
Set designer – Es Devlin
Costume designer – Katrina Lindsay
Lighting designer – Jon Clark
Sound designer – Paul Arditti

Dillon Evans (Osric) – Aaron Anthony
Mick Burrows (Stage Manager) – Tom Babbage
Hume Cronyn (Polonius) – Allan Corduner
Eileen Herlie (Gertrude) – Janie Dee
Susannah Mason (Stage Manager) – Elena Delia
George Voskovec (Player King) – Ryan Ellsworth
Richard Burton (Hamlet) – Johnny Flynn
Sir John Gielgud (Director and Ghost) – Mark Gatiss
Linda Marsh (Ophelia) – Phoebe Horn
Jessica Levy (Assistant to Sir John) – Aysha Kala
Elizabeth Taylor – Tuppence Middleton
William Redfield (Guildenstern) – Luke Norris
Frederick Young (Barnardo) – Huw Parmenter
Clement Fowler (Rosencrantz) – David Ricardo-Pearce

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