Neil Dowden on the South Bank
5 May 2023
Jack Thorne’s entertaining new play The Motive and the Cue puts the spotlight on Richard Burton performance as Hamlet under the direction of Sir John Gielgud on Broadway in 1964. It was a palpable hit, becoming the longest-running production of Shakespeare’s tragedy there. But Thorne’s intriguing backstage drama – which runs from a table reading of the script on the first day of rehearsals to the raising of the curtain on the first night – reveals the troubles and conflicts that were eventually overcome; in particular the personal and artistic clash of egos between Gielgud and Burton.
Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn.
Photo credit: Mark Douet.
Apparently, Burton and his co-star Peter O’Toole had made a deal while filming Becket that each would play Hamlet directed by either Sir Laurence Olivier or Gielgud, two distinguished past Princes of Denmark (with O’Toole going first with Olivier in the National Theatre Company’s debut production, at the Old Vic the previous year). It seemed a good match as Burton had worked with Gielgud several times before (including on Christopher Fry’s The Lady’s Not for Burning in the West End and on Broadway). However, we see the bonhomie between the two men wear thin as friction develops over the interpretation of the role of Hamlet – “singsong” versus “shouting” – and Burton’s resulting boorish behaviour towards Gielgud who he thinks is disrespectful.
Burton was of course an accomplished Shakespearean actor (and indeed had played Hamlet at the Old Vic a decade previously) – but he was also now a Hollywood star, while the 60-year-old Gielgud’s stellar classical theatre career was at this point at a low ebb amidst a thrusting new wave. Thorne shows that, ultimately, Burton has the ranking power – enhanced by his recent marriage to Elizabeth Taylor (after they fell in love on the set of Cleopatra), with showbiz’s most glamorous couple pursued by the paparazzi to New York.
Although Taylor is at first presented as a seductive distraction for Burton offstage – she wants to sit in on rehearsals too but he won’t let her – it is she who in the end ensures the show goes on. After weeks of simmering tensions, the drunken Burton explodes with anger after Gielgud tries to exert his authority as director, as the hot-blooded Welsh coalminer’s son humiliates the emotionally repressed English gentleman in front of the rest of the cast. Surprisingly, Taylor steps in as peacemaker by inviting Gielgud to a posh breakfast at their hotel, with Burton later publically pronouncing his respect for Gielgud. Soon after the two make a crucial breakthrough in portraying Hamlet’s psychological journey – which leads to success on stage.
Janie Dee and Johnny Flynn (foreground).
Photo credit: Mark Douet.
The Motive and the Cue is a bit of a slow burn but fascinating in its multi-faceted structure – at one point virtually a play within a play within a play – well suited to Gielgud’s own conception of presenting Hamlet as a final run-through by actors dressed in their own clothes on a half-finished set. It’s not necessary to have a good knowledge of Shakespeare’s tragedy, or to be acquainted with the background theatrical history, to enjoy the show which is essentially a sparring of differing personalities – but it certainly helps by adding a richness of context.
It is inspired by memoirs from two members of the Broadway cast, William Redfield (who features in this play) and Richard L. Sterne (who secretly recorded Burton and Gielgud’s private conversations). The play’s title comes from Hamlet’s soliloquy “O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” where he is commenting on an actor’s ability to persuasively convey a fictitious passion without having the real-life cause that Hamlet himself has.
Sam Mendes’s surefooted production is beautifully modulated, from whole ensemble scenes to intimate two-handers. Es Devlin’s impressively flexible design alternates between full-stage rehearsal room and luxury hotel apartment, with remarkably speedy set changes behind a curtain while excerpts from Hamlet are performed downstage, with surtitles indicating the day of rehearsal accompanied by an apposite quote from Shakespeare’s play.
Mark Gatiss as Sir John Gielgud.
Photo credit: Mark Douet.
In a moving portrayal, Mark Gatiss’s splendidly poised Gielgud captures both the dry humour of his withering put-downs (often disguised as compliments) and the vulnerability of a sensitive, homosexual man who ends up crying on the shoulder of a sex worker he takes home. In a charismatic performance, Johnny Flynn conveys Burton’s restless spirit and party-going hedonism as an escape from inner demons, though his lilting intonation can’t do full justice to Burton’s mellifluous baritone. There is real sensual attraction between him and Tuppence Middleton’s amusing, sexually confident Taylor who also reveals a perceptive understanding of men.
The rest of the 18-strong cast are very much supporting – indeed some are not much more than extras. Nonetheless, Allan Corduner makes an impact as the amiable Hume Cronyn (who won a Tony Award for his performance as Polonius) who is afraid Burton will spear him for real with his sword, while Janie Dee does as well as she can in the underwritten role of Eileen Herlie (Gertrude – a role she also played opposite Olivier on stage and film) who gives Burton a slap, and Luke Norris plays the impressionable but critical Redfield (Guildenstern) who later publishes his observations of this high-class theatrical showdown.
Note: The Gielgud/Burton production of Hamlet is available to watch free online on YouTube.