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The Motive and the Cue at the Noël Coward Theatre

In 1964, when I was an infant, mewling and puking in a nurse’s arms. Two world-class actors began work on producing a new and innovative version of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. Fifty-nine years later and this collaboration has become the stuff of its own play as, following a highly successful run at the National, Jack Thorne’s The Motive and the Cue has opened at the Noël Coward Theatre

Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor and Luke Norris as William Redfield in The Motive and the Cue in the West End. © Mark Douet.
Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor and Luke Norris as William Redfield in The Motive and the Cue in the West End. © Mark Douet.

Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn) has decided that he wants to do ‘His’ Hamlet. To bring this about there is only one director that Richard can think of. Sir John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss). An actor whose performances as the Danish Prince are legendary throughout the world. So, while his new wife – Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) remains in a hotel room, enjoying her honeymoon pretty much alone, Richard, Sir John and a full cast begin twenty-five days of intense rehearsals. Can these two thespians divided by age, background and attitude to the play come together and produce a definitive ‘Richard Burton’ version of Hamlet, or will the personalities and egos of the fiery Welsh dragon and the Calm English lion cause a clash between actor and director that will reverberate throughout the acting profession?

Two confessions here. First, I did not get to see The Motive and the Cue at the National and second, I have never seen a complete production of Hamlet. Is that relevant you may ask. Does one need to know the play to understand this production? The answer is no, definitely not. The Motive and the Cue is about the people involved and how diverse cultures can clash and work together. The story of the rehearsal is quite fascinating, with Burton often accusing Gielgud of trying to make him into a Sir John version of the Prince. Whilst Gielgud for his part does not always feel Burton is taking the part seriously enough or has gone into the person behind the written words. Jack Thorne’s script is based on “Letters from an Actor” by William Redfield (who was in the production) and “John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet” by Richard L. Sterne, which adds a large layer of reality to a story that is already fascinating.

Of course, great care must be taken when casting the lead roles in a show where many of the audience will be familiar with the characters already. And I have to say, the casting pretty much works beautifully with Flynn and Gatiss as Burton and Gielgud. Flynn really reminds me of the Burton of my youth and how I remember him in interviews and guest appearances on shows and the voice, particularly in the various scenes and soliloquies that act as inter-scene moments, just takes me back to the ‘War of the Worlds’ album. Gatiss totally shines as Gielgud. Every mannerism and voice intonation are perfect. Gielgud was the master of the passive-aggressive put-down and Gatiss brings out every inch of this, particularly in some of the waspish exchanges with Burton. Similarly, the relationship between the two men and Tuppence Middleton’s Elizabeth Taylor works really well, particularly the breakfast meeting between Taylor and Gielgud. It is a shame that these three are so good because, just as I am sure happened in real life, they reduce the rest of the highly talented cast to mere players in the shadows. Not to throw shade at them for every actor is excellent.

Sam Mendes’ direction with snippets of Hamlet interspersed between the main text of the play, really works and as a way of covering the changes in Es Devlin’s set, although occasionally the sounds behind the curtain as pieces were moving were a little intrusive. But that is a minor point and definitely did not detract from the magic of the show.

And magic it definitely is. The clash of these two theatrical greats, along with the glimpse behind the curtain of the creative process makes The Motive and the Cue a perfect production for any lover of theatre to experience. There is a lot of comedy – Gatiss is a master of comic timing – and a lot of intrigue with some very personal elements being brought out and portrayed beautifully. The final scene is breathtaking in its simplicity and beauty with the well-deserved standing ovation going on for a long time. If the play is the thing, then this play is certainly that.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

1964: Richard Burton, newly married to Elizabeth Taylor, is to play the title role in an experimental new Broadway production of Hamlet under John Gielgud’s exacting direction. But as rehearsals progress, two ages of theatre collide and the collaboration between actor and director soon threatens to unravel.

The hugely celebrated production of The Motive and the Cue transfers to the West End this December for 15 weeks only, following a sold-out run at the National Theatre.

The Motive and the Cue cast and creative team
By: Jack Thorne, based on the books John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet by Richard Sterne and Letters From an Actor by William Redfield

Director: Sam Mendes
Cast list: Johnny Flynn (as Richard Burton), Tuppence Middleton (as Elizabeth Taylor), Mark Gatiss (as John Gielgud), Allan Corduner, Ryan Ellsworth, Aysha Kala, Luke Norris, Michael Walters, Laurence Ubong Williams Design: Es Devlin
Costumes: Katrina Lindsay
Lighting: Jon Clark
Sound: Paul Arditti

The Motive and the Cue

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