THE MOTIVE AND THE CUE – ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ – for the love of theatre….

Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn, photograph by Mark Douet


by Jack Thorne

Directed by Sam Mendes

National Theatre/Lyttelton, London – until 15 July 2023

If you love theatre, you’re going to want to see this. It’s as simple as that. If you’re interested in the craft, the process of play-making, you’re going to need to see this. If, on top of all that, you’re fascinated by old school stardom of a bygone era – specifically Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and, for those with more classical taste, Sir John Gielgud – then it’ll be like all your Christmasses have come at once. Jack Thorne’s engrossing new play is a love letter to the theatre and, in Sam Mendes’s beautifully calibrated, elegantly flamboyant production, looks likely to be the biggest smash hit the National has had with a piece of new writing on one of its main stages since Alan Bennett gave us The History Boys.

Thorne’s scintillating piece centres on the famous Burton Hamlet which Gielgud directed on Broadway in 1964. Burton and Taylor were newly weds at the time and the new bride had put her lucrative Hollywood career on hold temporarily to be in New York to support her husband. The play alternates between rehearsal room and various opulent NYC locations as the Burton-Taylors entertain, Richard struggles to find “his” Hamlet (as opposed to the one he feels Sir John is trying to impose upon him) and Gielgud overcomes his own demons as he struggles to stay relevant but true to his craft. There are glimpses of the alcoholism that will eventually cost Burton his reputation and then his life, and Broadway obsessives will love noting that the character list includes veteran actor Hume Cronyn and star Alfred Drake (the original Fred/Petruchio in Kiss Me Kate) both of whom were in the ‘64 Hamlet cast.

The play would have worked well enough as a gossipy, glamorous backstage drama but Thorne is interested in rather more than that. The Motive And The Cue (the title is a quote from one of Hamlet’s speeches, and refers to the intellectual reason for something and the passion to ignite it into being) examines why the theatre and storytelling are so important, and the legacy handed down through generations, both onstage and off. It also looks with great sensitivity at the isolation that a high profile artist who was also gay would have had to endure in those less enlightened times (there’s a particularly moving sequence when a lonely Gielgud picks up a male prostitute for company and the result is entirely unexpected.)

As Gielgud, Mark Gatiss delivers career-best, uncanny work. Not only does he look and sound just like him, but he captures his essence, his wit, his charm, his occasional tetchiness, and an underlying melancholy. At a time when so many things on stage and screen are hailed as “great”, this truly is a great performance. Johnny Flynn’s Richard Burton is almost as impressive, projecting the swagger, sexiness and bonhomie but also the sense of a lost soul. He’s likeable and maddening, irresistible yet on his way to being potentially a bit seedy. Flynn impersonates the compelling rasp of the Burton tone with real accuracy, even if the swoonworthy depth of timbre is sometimes missing.

Tuppence Middleton is a slightly one-note Elizabeth Taylor, and looks nothing like her, but is a suitably flashy presence in Katrina Lindsay’s period-gorgeous costume designs. Janie Dee is underused but still glorious as a veteran stage actress while Luke Norris and Allan Corduner do vivid, rich work as two main players, and Laurence Ubong Williams is quietly devastating as the young man from the New York streets who briefly connects Gielgud with his humanity.

Although it’s a play about theatre, Mendes, in tandem with Es Devlin’s striking set designs, gives it a cinematic sweep and motion, as walls expand and contract as though to focus or wide-shot scenes and moments. There is though a lot of theatrical magic here, from the act one closing sequence where Gatiss’s Gielgud quietly, and alone on stage, runs through a Hamlet speech with such understated brilliance, or the section where Gielgud and Burton find the common ground to make this particular Prince of Denmark resonate for the new actor playing him and Burton thrillingly delivers, or the spinetingling final section which is pure showbiz but also pure class. Thorne’s writing is erudite, punchy and heartfelt.

Ultimately, this terrific play and production is the closest this generation will probably get to seeing the particular greatness of Gielgud and Burton, but they will be seeing authentic greatness nonetheless, right here on this stage. With it’s famous characters, classical references and New York setting, I suspect The Motive And The Cue will turn out to have very long legs and wide ranging international appeal, but Flynn and especially Gatiss may prove very difficult to replace.

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