Theatre review - The Motive and the Cue

In 1964, Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn) agreed to star in a Broadway version of Hamlet directed by John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss). Gielgud’s vision was to strip the play of frills and stage it in modern dress as if it was a final rehearsal.

Jack Thorne’s absorbing take, The Motive and the Cue, is inspired by two books by members of the original cast: William Redfield and Richard L Stern.

Thorne paints a nuanced portrait of both men while Flynn and Gatiss give towering performances. As rehearsals progress, the two titans inevitably clash, their distinct theatrical styles at odds, and as their meetings become increasingly fraught the collaboration between actor and director threatens to unravel.

Burton, newly married to Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) is by turn arrogant and insecure. He invites the cast round to their hotel suite, where he enjoys holding court. He’s less sure of himself in Gielgud’s space, and turns up to one rehearsal steaming drunk and insults his director.

While Burton paces the room, Gielgud is thoughtful and restrained – on the surface at least. His own self-doubt is revealed in a poignant scene with a male escort. He could also be acerbic – there’s a well-timed moment when he observes ironically of Burton’s Hamlet: “You shout wonderfully.”

It’s stunningly staged by Sam Mendes. In stark contrast to the sparseness Gielgud insisted upon for his production of Shakespeare’s classic, Mendes offers richly detailed settings from the enormous rehearsal space to the Burtons’ lavish suite (where even the flowers speak volumes) courtesy of Es Devlin, and beautifully lit by Jon Clarke.

I thought The Motive and the Cue, essentially a play about a play with actors playing actors debating technique, might be deemed too meta-theatre for some but, judging by the ecstatic response on opening night, you don’t have to get all the references to truly enjoy.

Until July 15

Originally pubished by Wesminster Extra