The Motive And The Cue – Noël Coward Theatre, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Jack Thorne

Director: Sam Mendes

“The play’s the thing wherein I’ll catch the conscience of the King” says the Prince Of Denmark early in Act Two of Shakespeare’s tragedy Hamlet. We hear the line in The Motive And The Cue, Jack Thorne’s crowd-pleasing nostalgic homage to actors, acting, and the enduring process of reimagining the Bard. It is particularly apt here because Thorne’s work captures the essence, the conscience if you like, of what it means to be, and to behave, as a monarch of the stage. It is about the conflicts and contrasts that emerge when one egocentric generation of theatrical royalty passes their craft on to the next.

Transferring to the Noël Coward Theatre following a sold-out run at the National Theatre garnering an Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play, The Motive And The Cue is set during the month-long rehearsal process for the 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet. Directed by John Gielgud, long considered one of the greatest Hamlets of his generation, the original production starred Richard Burton in the titular role. The run was immensely commercially successful but for cast and creatives, emotionally fraught.

In Thorne’s slick, polished, and ebullient dramatization, directed by current theatre royalty in the form of Sam Mendes, Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) and Burton (Johnny Flynn) bicker furiously over aesthetics, technique, and ideas. Gielgud struggles to communicate his high-concept conceit to a method cast mostly interested in character motivation and technique. Burton bridles at the director’s inability to give him the direction he needs and struggles to find a reading of the Prince he understands. Burton’s new bride Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton), who scares the bejesus out of everyone in the cast, acts as peacemaker and provides grit for the production’s creative oyster.

The fireworks come midway in The Motive And The Cue and are too neatly (and too quickly) resolved. But the fraught tensions bubbling away as the emblem of the old guard slowly yields to the pin-up boy of the new feel real, urgent, and engrossing throughout. The men’s actions are driven on both sides by jealousy and barely suppressed insecurity and, in Burton’s case, copious amounts of rage-inducing booze.

Gielgud’s emerging fury at his leading man’s antics is channelled into that very English form of polite aggression – saying one thing while communicating the opposite. “That was interesting, no polish required” he comments on a particularly unwelcome thespian flourish. “Enter King Richard” he says when the principal arrives to rehearsal, late and hungover. Burton’s anger is feral and sadistic, “don’t you dare give me a line reading” he spits with venom. A later scene sees him drunk and abusive, ritually humiliating most of his fellow cast. Ultimately the rehearsal process, tortuous as it is, provides artistic results, unlocking in each man a way of bridging the gulf between old and new, intellect and passion.

Middleton plays Taylor as a cool, calculating, jobbing actor who finds motivation in cash rather than character. It is a far cry from the Hollywood image of sultry temptress but entirely believable all the same. Flynn’s Burton is a rough-hewn, hard-drinking, Prince Hal of a man, who eats his words with the same relish as he necks his Scotch. The performer has remarkable presence, commanding the stage like a predatory beast in search of game, but somehow still feels like an actor imitating rather than inhabiting Burton.

Gatiss offers the stand-out performance as the witty, waspish director, a “classicist wanting to be modern” who battles to understand the generational change in acting he sees around him. Gatiss is the kind of actor who can bring pathos and empathy to an empty coffee cup. Pitched mid-way between a patrician country bishop and Prince Philip in a benign mood, his Gielgud is characteristically complex; simultaneously vulnerable and egoistical, particularly in an exquisitely penned scene with a streetwise sex-worker.

Thorne intercuts rehearsal scenes with extended, immaculately directed passages from Hamlet. It is a neat way of drawing a parallel between the Prince’s journey towards understanding what he wants, and Burton’s journey towards understanding what kind of Prince he wants to be. It is also a reminder that, for all the wit, drama, and philosophical power in Thorne’s writing, it is in Shakespeare’s genius that generations of actors find new insights.

Es Devlin’s set brings a feeling of film to the stage. Projected titles mark out each rehearsal day. Primary colours indicate different spaces: red for Burton the fiery comet, blue for Gielgud the languid violin, neutral white for the rehearsal space.

Runs until 23 March 2024

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The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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