The Motive and The Cue ★★★★

Jack Thorne’s new play, The Motive and The Cue, goes backstage of the legendary 1964 Richard Burton / John Gielgud production of Hamlet on Broadway.

In 1964, Richard Burton was flying high. He had just become the fifth husband of Elizabeth Taylor. He had earned critical praise and an Oscar nomination for his role in the film Becket. He followed that up with success in the role of a defrocked priest in Tennessee Williams’ The Night of the Iguana. These two hit roles led Time magazine to dub Burton “the new Mr Box Office”.

The apocryphal story goes that Burton and his Becket co-star Peter O’Toole decided they would both play Hamlet on stage, tossing a coin to decide which of two legendary actors would direct them in their respective productions. O’Toole ‘won’ Laurence Olivier who would direct him at the National Theatre while Burton was assigned John Gielgud as his director for a New York production of Shakespeare’s most famous play. 

Both Burton and Gielgud were giants in the acting world but from distinctively different eras. The gulf between them and their approaches would become the stuff of legend. And indeed would become the basis of Jack Thorne’s new play The Motive and The Cue

All images by Mark Douet

The gulf is hinted at from the off both in the lyrics of the Coward song which opens the show (“When I grew up my parents would / Unduly emphasize the gulf between / The bad and good“) and the positioning of the two men at either end of an unfeasibly long table in the rehearsal room. It is the struggle to find the common ground between these two different men that drives the play. 

Gielgud is very much the embodiment of old school theatre. Having played Hamlet several times, including taking the role as the youngest actor aged 26 at the Old Vic, he oozes theatrical bonhomie. A cerebral man with a formidable intellect, he has a genteel courteousness albeit one that is paired with a biting wit. Burton, by contrast, is something of a young turk. He is hot-blooded, passionate and ambitious. His swagger, that befits his bourgeoning celebrity, can tip too easily into boorishness. The portrayals by Mark Gatiss as Gielgud and Johnny Flynn as Burton are nothing short of stunning. Given their unique and memorable voices, the temptation merely to impersonate the two famed actors would have been strong but Gatiss and Flynn offer much more. 

Flynn offers Burton’s soaring Port Talbot tones with all the rough edges intact. When he performs scenes as The Dane, he captures the Welshman’s volcanic delivery. He successfully rounds his character of faux-bravura and restlessness with a convincing underlying insecurity. Handsome and charismatic, Flynn gives a decent approximation of what Richard Burton’s star power would have felt like. Thorne’s script nails the latent imposter syndrome in the actor whose star is in the ascendency.

The suspicion that his greatest days are behind him underpins Gatiss’ mesmerising performance as Gielgud. Looking and sounding uncannily like the esteemed Sir John, right down to those inscrutable eyes, Gatiss delivers the poignancy of a classical actor feeling irrelevant in modern times and an ageing gay man’s isolation and loneliness in an unaccepting era. Frustrated and increasingly believing that he is the wrong director for this production, his Gielgud sits alone in the huge empty rehearsal room and speaks Hamlet’s speech to the players in the wonderful, mellifluous style. It’s the very opposite of a robustious actor tearing “a passion to tatters”. With his voice beginning to crack with repressed emotion, it’s a hauntingly beautiful and moving scene. The depth and layers of his portrayal should see Gatiss rewarded in the next awards season. 

Director Sam Mendes, a man who is no stranger to success in both the worlds of film and theatre, strikes a balance between the froth and the feeling of the piece. Scenes in the rehearsal room fizz with humour. The cast expecting motivation from their elder-statesman director instead receive cryptic pronouncements. Gielgud hilariously follows a compliment on a line read with a sly comment that suggests the praise is anything but. “You do shout wonderfully” he tells Burton after a particularly bombastic speech. 

While Hamlet features a play within a play, The Motive and The Cue adds one layer more. We are watching Johnny Flynn playing Richard Burton playing Hamlet. While this could feel so meta that it becomes self-indulgent, Mendes draws out such vital, protean performances from his cast, as an audience you feel that the ending isn’t inevitable. 

There is a powerful scene where Burton arrives late to the rehearsal room , drunk, with a tray of scotch and soda for the cast. His ugly oafishness sours the whole room. His aggression speaks of a rock star with an appetite for self-destruction. The cast members, one by one, decline his offer of a drink leading finally to Gielgud’s rejection “I’m afraid I’m a professional”. It’s a crushing moment that feels that the whole production will implode.

Salvation comes with a rather too-convenient Dea Ex Machina in the form of newly-wed Elizabeth Taylor. Aiming to broker a peace accord without Burton’s knowledge, she charms Gielgud with her disarming honesty. Finding shared experience with the Knight, she highlights that she was born on the silver screen and Gielgud was born to the stage, but Burton was not. Revealing that Burton’s father was a violent drunk who didn’t give a damn about his son, she offers Gielgud the key to unlock Burton’s Hamlet. Tuppence Middleton channels something of Taylor’s glamour but never quite captures the icon’s playfulness. A huge ask to play one of the icons of the Twentieth Century, she is not helped by having to deliver portentous lines such as “help him and he will help you, fight him and he will fight you”. 

The play ends as the first night arrives. The sense of Burton’s first night nerves is palpable. When he reaches out to Gielgud, the senior actor’s parting reassurance “It’s your time now” is not only a passing on the theatrical baton from one generation to the next, it’s also the fatherly approval that Burton has craved so long. With a stirring blast of Zadok the Priest, Burton heads off towards a role that will prove to be his coronation as a respected actor. It’s a surprisingly emotional and heartfelt conclusion. 

A hit, a very palpable hit for the National.

A compelling hymn to acting that packs an emotional punch – ★★★★ 4 stars

The Motive and The Cue Tickets

The Motive and The Cue plays at the National Theatre until 15 July 2023

Book Tickets