Review: The motive and the cue


by Mike Matthaiakis

The Motive and the Cue,” in its West End transfer from the National Theatre, delivers a rapier-witted and poignant love letter to theatre, Hamlet, and the remarkable actors who brought the play to life in the 20th century. Penned by Jack Thorne, this production explores the intense creative clash between two legendary actors, John Gielgud and Richard Burton, as they mount a groundbreaking Broadway production of Hamlet in 1964, shattering box-office records.

Thorne’s play artfully captures the intricacies of rehearsal and life, echoing Hamlet’s themes of performance, ghosts, and lineage. The dynamic between Gielgud, steeped in tradition, and Burton, seeking new territory but uncertain of the path, reveals a complex father-son relationship that unlocks both the production and the performance. Thorne skillfully intertwines the mysteries of rehearsal with Hamlet’s contemplations on mortality, the passing on of the challenge to “act,” and the glimpses of infinity.

Transplanting the play to the Noël Coward Theatre adds an ethereal touch, especially with the arch songs warbled by “the Master” that open each act. The setting, once the New Theatre where Gielgud dazzled as Hamlet in 1934, enhances the nostalgic and Shakespearean atmosphere. Projections and excerpts contribute to the chronology of vignettes as the clock ticks towards opening night, vividly conjuring the world of Shakespearean endeavor.

While the production focuses on the high-windowed rehearsal space, back-rooms, hotel suites, and a bare stage, some might yearn for more context, especially regarding the media circus and public fascination surrounding Burton and his wife, Elizabeth Taylor. Despite potential hermeticism, the sheer fascination of the story and the compelling performances dissolve any misgivings.

Mark Gatiss, in the performance of his career, masterfully embodies the spirit of Gielgud – a delicate balance of humility, haughtiness, professorial demeanor, and playful charisma. Every detail, from mouthing lines involuntarily to moments of sobbing loneliness, is impeccably rendered. Johnny Flynn’s portrayal of Burton, a rasping figure of volatile egotism and booze-addled charm, contrasts Gatiss’s Gielgud perfectly. Tuppence Middleton adds another layer of intrigue as Liz, the cool, glamorous, and casually perceptive character who navigates the complexities of the actors’ lives.

The play reaches its pinnacle during the 11th hour becalmed rapprochement between Gielgud and Burton, particularly as Burton tackles “To be or not to be.” This moment encapsulates a pure, shiver-making revelation, highlighting the profound emotional depth achieved by the cast. As the play moves towards its next stop, an essential homecoming in New York, “The Motive and the Cue” stands as a testament to the enduring power of theatre and the indelible impact of its iconic figures.

Until 23 March, 2024 – Noel Coward Theatre