This show is drama about drama, and if that’s not your cup of tea, let’s just say there are other shows at the National Theatre to consider instead. There might also be a few too many long quotes from Shakespeare’s Hamlet for seasoned theatregoers in what is essentially a play about the working relationship between Sir John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) and Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn), but the show requires no prior knowledge of Hamlet, and the contrasting approaches Gielgud and Burton had when it came to playing the same character is made crystal clear in their respective portrayals.
It is, I trust, no spoiler, or at least not much of one, to say the pair didn’t exactly get on all the time – for a show that runs at two hours and forty minutes (there is an interval), it’s reasonable to expect some differences of opinion along the way. Things get very verbal – but that’s as far as it goes between the central characters: it’s not like the blunt stage sword used to strike Hume Cronyn’s Polonius (Allan Corduner) is swapped out for a sharp real one and applied by Burton’s Hamlet to director Gielgud instead. The real Cronyn, it’s worth pointing out, won Best Featured Actor in a Play in 1964 for his Polonius on Broadway (the very production this play is about).
Hamlet doesn’t quite become a play within a play, if only because the play (that is, The Motive and The Cue) takes place over the length of a four-week rehearsal period, with each scene taking place on a different day – mercifully, a few days are skipped. While at least one rehearsal is called off completely by Gielgud as it descends into chaos, it’s far from Noises Off. The Hamlet cast as a whole are not tearing one another apart. That’s not to say there isn’t humour, with Gielgud having something of an acerbic tongue – just the right amount of comic relief, even if it isn’t to everyone’s taste, in what might otherwise have been a show heavily laden with sheer earnestness.
The stagecraft is very good, with Es Devlin’s set cut down to size in the National’s Lyttelton space for a scene in, say, a hotel room, and enlarged for ensemble scenes in a large rehearsal hall. There are some insights, too, into the rehearsal process and what it takes to get a play to the stage, from both acting and directing perspectives – things like financing, marketing and designing costumes and props for a production are for another show at another time.
Tuppence Middleton’s Elizabeth Taylor is, on balance, given just about enough stage time, including a breakfast meal with Gielgud. Without giving too much away, she has a pivotal role to play in seeing to it that both director and lead actor continue to work together despite their many differences, her charm working in more ways than one. As for the whole Gielgud/Burton storyline, it’s far more nuanced than traditional versus contemporary – they both have struggles of their own to speak of (or not), though they are at markedly different stages, so to speak, of their professional lives.
It could, perhaps, be a tad pacier. But overall, it’s a fascinating portrait of a real life story, executed with a mixture of subtlety and vehemence. A full range of human emotion is laid bare in this worthy and worthwhile production. As neither Gielgud nor Burton would have said, it’s a good ‘un.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Why would the most famous movie star in the world choose to do a play which everyone already knows? And what lures us back to the same plays, year after year?
Richard Burton, newly married to Elizabeth Taylor, is to play the title role in an experimental new 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.
This fierce and funny new play by Jack Thorne offers a glimpse into the politics of a rehearsal room and the relationship between art and celebrity.
Sam Mendes directs Johnny Flynn as Burton, Mark Gatiss as Gielgud and Tuppence Middleton as Taylor.
The Motive and the Cue
a new play by Jack Thorne
A co-production with Neal Street Productions