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By Daniel Lammin
28th March 2024

Much like cinema, the theatre loves telling stories about itself, about the people who work within the theatre and the singular experiences they have. The theatrical canon is peppered with self-referential works, ranging from the romantic, such as Anton Chekhov's 'The Seagull', to the hysterical, such as Michael Fray's 'Noises Off'. Often these works are built around a moment of high drama, the interpersonal politics and the "magic of the theatre" taking precedents. Jack Thorne's play 'The Motive and the Cue', the latest work from the London stage to feature in the National Theatre's ongoing NT Live program, also concerns itself with the theatre, but rather than adding romanticism or histrionics to its portrait, aims to strip away the veneer to show theatre as what it is - hard, rigorous work.

Inspired by contemporary accounts, 'The Motive and the Cue' looks at the rehearsal process for the 1964 Broadway production of Shakespeare's 'Hamlet', starring screen legend Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn, 'Emma.') and directed by legendary British actor Sir John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss, TV's 'Sherlock'). Rather than present an elaborate rending of Shakespeare's play, Gielgud conceives of a radical approach, presenting the "rehearsed performance" of the play, as it would be before adding elaborate set, costume or sound. In Thorne's play, both men come with enormous respect for one another, but tensions begin to rise almost immediately when it becomes clear that these two men sit at opposite ends of their interpretation of the titular character. Gielgud, having played Hamlet at the height of his career, has a more classicist approach, while the tempestuous Burton, more instinctual in his craft than Gielgud, struggles to reconcile the ghost of past Hamlets (in particular Gielgud's, the ghost of whom is standing in front of him) with his more modernist approach. This tension begins to spill onto the floor of the rehearsal room, passive-aggressive quips evolving into public acts of admonition and humiliation. To reconcile their differences, both men must stare into the mirror the play places in front of them and confront the conundrums and contradictions, not just in the play, but in themselves.

Written with tremendous wit, insight and muscularity, 'The Motive and the Cue' grabs you from the moment it begins. Thorne's writing dances on the edge of danger, a persistent tension apparent straight away between Burton and Gielgud that those around them, including Burton's new wife Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton, TV's 'Mank'), have to find a way to navigate through. Rather than letting the easy drama of the conflict take over the production, Thorne always anchors it in the work we see in the rehearsal room, allowing the drama to emerge from his astute observations of a traditional rehearsal process. These rehearsal room scenes are the highlights of the play, certainly in the way director Sam Mendes ('American Beauty') stages them. The space is wide, shaped like a CinemaScope screen, often placing Gielgud and Burton at opposite ends. At its more relaxed moments, it offers the perfect minimalist stage for their play-within-a-play 'Hamlet' to take place, but at its more tense, it becomes an enormous boxing ring, the two men circling one another for dominance. These are two powerful artists used to holding court in whichever space they occupy, and despite the clear actor/director relationship, they both find it necessary to assert their place. 'The Motive and the Cue' is one of the most insightful explorations of the relationship between a director and an actor I've seen, articulating the necessity for such relationships to be a constant exchange. It's a balancing act, the need for the director to shape the performance as they see necessary while also letting the actor lead what the performance should be.


In Thorne's drama, the 1964 production of 'Hamlet' is a crossroads for both men. For Burton, it's a chance to prove himself as a true artist, taking on the greatest role ever written and yet a role that isn't entirely suited to him. Playing Hamlet is a mountain to climb, partly because of all the contradictions Shakespeare wrote into him but mostly because of how much it asks the actor to reveal about themselves. There is no clear answer for what "To be or not to be?" means, and each actor who plays the part imbues that question with their own fears, their own broken hearts. Even with his charm and bravado, it's clear that Burton is holding back from what the play asks of him and communicating the parts of himself that leave him vulnerable, the risk of the art not holding up to the expectations of the artist creating it.

For Gielgud, it is also the ghost of his own Hamlet that haunts him, the ghost of the great man he once was. His star in the firmament has fallen, and the shift in the theatre ushered in by writers like Joe Orton, Tennessee Williams and Ann Jellicoe is very different to the theatre in which he rose to renown. He cannot return to the version of himself that he was, and is terrified of the potential obscurity his future holds. This is also linked to his sexuality, that hidden part of himself that the great Shakespearean roles were able to protect, like armour. He takes on the job of directing Burton as Hamlet, not just because he admires Burton but because he has no other offers on his plate. There are plenty of jokes at the expense of Laurence Olivier, Gielgud's contemporary and often mirror image, but Thorne doesn't just invoke Olivier for the enjoyment of audience recognition. His success is the like that Gielgud lacks, and as much as his cast, crew and Elizabeth Taylor will tell him he is the greatest actor alive, you can tell that Gielgud isn't so sure he deserves such a title anymore.

The real magic trick that Thorne pulls with 'The Motive and the Cue', and that Mendes fully embraces, is the opportunity for the play-within-the-play to offer a commentary on the play itself. This isn't a new technique, but it's done here with real care and rigour. Characters never sit there and say, "All this is mirroring 'Hamlet', isn't it?", they never articulate the metaphor. Instead, these fundamental questions about how these men see themselves simmer as subtext under the questions they ask each other in rehearsals, always about the text or the character or the craft. What 'The Motive and the Cue' expresses so beautifully is the careful dance that theatre engages in, that of hard work requiring tremendous technical skill and stamina ultimately leading towards a kind of psychological mysticism - a practical, vocational task resulting in the indescribable. This is what makes the play so thrilling, like an intellectual and emotional rollercoaster, and why, even with its considerable length, it never lets you out of its grasp. The doors of the acting process are thrown open for the audience, and rather than it being some magical thing, it becomes something altogether more fascinating, infuriating and beautiful.

Built around the rehearsal scenes are small vignettes in private spaces, either the lavish apartments of Burton and Taylor or the small, unassuming office or apartment of Gielgud. Between these moments, further weaving Shakespeare's play into the drama of 'The Motive and the Cue', are interludes from 'Hamlet', pertinent and haunting snatches of scenes that resonate across the production. The way the production moves so seamlessly between these moments, and the pin-point focus of the performances show off Mendes' best qualities as a director. There's no artifice to hide behind, and so his boundless energy and invention is funnelled into the performances.

What 'The Motive and the Cue' expresses so beautifully is the careful dance that theatre engages in, that of hard work requiring tremendous technical skill and stamina ultimately leading towards a kind of psychological mysticism - a practical, vocational task resulting in the indescribable.

Middleton is a delight as Elizabeth Taylor, completely foregoing any attempt to imitate her and instead giving her a keen, sharp feminine energy to counterbalance Burton's bombast. Thorne writes her as an astute, intelligent woman, aware of her star power and thirsting for a career of density and weight. She often sits between the two men as mediator, but it's never functionary. She has as much emotional skin in the game as either of them, and is just as skilled at intellectual sparring. Middleton ensures that, every time Taylor is on the stage, sparks are flying everywhere.

Johnny Flynn really soars as Richard Burton, immersing himself fully into the actor's strange vocal idiosyncrasies and the enormous space he would occupy in any room he stepped into. His impression of Burton is at first uncanny, but very soon you cease to notice it, caught up entirely in the power of his performance. The moments where he plays Burton playing Hamlet are magical, contrasting moments of genuine awe with flashes of ego that shatter the illusion. He always feels like a pressure cooker about to burst, and when he does, it's with shocking cruelty. It seems that, every time I review a Johnny Flynn performance, I'm arguing for him as one of our most exciting actors, and his work in 'The Motive and the Cue' just cements this argument for me even further.

As great as Middleton, Flynn and all of the supporting cast are though, it was Mark Gatiss as Sir John Gielgud who really blew me away. Gatiss is always electrifying on stage, but there is so much weight and sadness and devastation in his performance here. Like Burton, Gielgud uses his wit to hide his bruises, but the blows he takes from Burton in the play are considerable, and you can sense the confusion as Gielgud clutches at straws, trying to make this whole thing work, to connect with Burton and justify, if not to everyone else then to himself, that he is still relevant. It's a tremendous, detailed, deeply moving performance, perhaps his finest to date.

After the excellent work the National Theatre Live team achieved with 'Vanya', they hit a winner once again with their approach to filming 'The Motive and the Cue'. The large cast and CinemaScope stage should get in the way of making this live capture successful, but the on-stage action is keenly observed, and as with 'Vanya', movement of the camera and the choice of framing add to the drama rather than detract. There's a gorgeous moment at the end of Act 1, after Gielgud has been fully humiliated by Burton, where the great actor is left in the rehearsal room alone. Giving a heartbreaking rendition of one of Hamlet's soliloquies, Gatiss delivers the text to three empty chairs. The camera is always careful to frame Gatiss in relation to the chairs, establishing them as a point of focus while also emphasising his physical isolation. In the early days of NT Live, it felt like the camera's job was just to capture the action. With these recent presentations, the filmed version feels more in line with the dramaturgy of the productions, making them a much more satisfying substitute for the real thing.

'The Motive and the Cue' is such an accomplished piece of writing, performance and production, managing to both feel event-level epic and shockingly intimate all at once. From the moment it began, I felt an immediate recognition of how vividly it recreates the feelings, the sounds, the textures and the rhythms of a rehearsal room, so much so that my heart ached to be back in one. In the short interview with Jack Thorne and Sam Mendes played during the interval, they both talked about how much they had missed the theatre and wanted to create something that captured the experience of being in the throes of that process. Choosing to dramatise the rehearsals for the 1964 production of 'Hamlet' not only delivers the perfect scenario for such an experience, but imbues it with an added sense of urgency, pathos and emotional integrity. 'The Motive and the Cue' isn't just a reminder of the power of theatre (in both its execution and its content), but a reminder of how much one leaves of one's self in the act of creating it.

RELEASE DATE: 05/04/2024
RUN TIME: 03h 00m
CAST: Johnny Flynn
Tuppence Middleton
Mark Gatiss
Luke Norris
Aysha Kala
Allan Corduner
Ryan Ellsworth
Elena Delia
Huw Parmenter
Laurence Ubong Williams
Sam Mendes
WRITER: Jack Thorne
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