Mark Gatiss & Johnny Flynn astound as Gielgud & Burton
If you love theatre, you will love The Motive And The Cue. It is not only about two legendary actors in rehearsal, thanks to playwright Jack Thorne’s ability to create drama, Sam Mendes ‘ direction and the acting of Mark Gatiss, Johnny Flynn and Tuppence Middleton, it is also as close to theatrical perfection as you can hope for.
Back in 1964, the great classical actor Sir John Gielgud directed a production of Hamlet on Broadway starring the man who at the time was probably the most famous film actor in the world.
In The Motive And The Cue, the National Theatre production which has just opened in the West End at the Noel Coward Theatre, we follow them from the first day of rehearsal to the first night of the play.
This has to be one is the best plays ever written about the rehearsal process. Jack Thorne has talked about the way rehearsals are used to explore the text and find a way to the truth of the characters and situation. And truth is what art needs in order to succeed. As Gielgud points out in the play, the actor needs to share with the audience something they both can believe. To observe the process of how they get there is fascinating.
It can be a disadvantage to use well known people and actual events, because we may think we know the characters and what happened and that may in turn get in the way of the play’s attempts to convince us of this particular interpretation of them.
So for a moment, let’s think of The Motive And The Cue as not about Gielgud and Burton, but simply about two people who clash because of their different approaches to acting but who learn to respect one another and work together to create a production that tells a truth about Hamlet.
So, the older man comes from an emotionally buttoned up generation, who at sixty is finding himself left behind by the new trend of ‘angry’ working class drama and actors, like Burton. He values the verse which he speaks with a precise mellifluous voice, and, here’s the rub, is considered to have been the finest Hamlet in living memory.
The younger man is a great stage actor, potentially the greatest of his generation, thought by some to be the new Laurence Olivier, because of his rich voice and commanding muscular presence. He has become a Hollywood star but still yearns for success on stage. However his alcoholism and lack of discipline hold him back. The two are yin and tang.
Seen like that, it could be any clash between an older and younger generation, between a fading light and a bright young thing, between great past achievement and great future potential.
In this rehearsal process, we see Burton struggling to understand Hamlet. He sees the Prince as a man of action- not unlike himself- so cannot fathom why he dithers so. We see Gielgud offering many ideas or notes but unable to resist showing off his way of speaking the lines. And this is a most interesting aspect of the play- it says that the worst directors tell the actors what to do, while the best work with their actors to find the truth.
Burton initially reacts badly to this to-and-fro approach and, in moments of his worst behaviour, mocks the old thespian. Gielgud behaves with restraint but is a master of ironic comments: ‘Oh, you only wanted my opinion so you could disagree with it.’ When he does let go, he lets off the sharpest barbs.
Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn are both tremendous. Mr Gatiss speaks with a musical precision, he carries himself as the critic Kenneth Tynan said of Gielgud, like a furled umbrella. In fact, he is so convincing that it almost seems a shame for Mr Flynn, who otherwise would be the standout star of the show with his stabbing forceful vocals, his frenetic bonhomie, and his vicious bullying, all underpinned by emotional pain.
Tuppence Middleton is also splendid as Elizabeth Taylor combining vivaciousness and sexuality, with self deprecating humour and a down-to-earth quality.
Es Devlin’s set follows the same principles of creating truth rather than imitation. The rehearsal room may not be totally naturalistic- there is less clutter but the brightly lit, airy space with no obvious ceiling suggests the truth of an openness where ideas can flow.
Similarly, the set for Burton and Taylor’s living room is not lavishly furnished, but a huge dark red wall convinces us that they live a life of luxury and decadence. The viewing aperture opens and closes in the rectangular shape of a proscenium arch, revealing and containing the sets but at other times closing them off, so that one or two actors are left alone at the front of the stage against a black backdrop for key moments of thought or conversation.
Hamlet of course is driven by his betrayed and dead father, so it’s hard not to see the relationship between the two men in The Motive And The Cue as that of a father and son, a love hate relationship in which they ultimately reconcile to release the Hamlet that is within Burton as they find the motive for Hamlet’s behaviour and the cue for releasing the passion of his performance.
This leads to Johnny Flynn performing a stupendous version of the ‘To be or not to be’ speech that, on the night I saw it, received a spontaneous and deserved round of applause.
How fitting it would be if Sam Mendes’ faultless production were to transfer to Broadway.
Originally seen at the National Theatre, this production has transferred to the Noel Coward Theatre in the West End of London (where Gielgud performed his own legendary Hamlet). It can be seen there until 23 March 2024