Stuart King

Review: THE MOTIVE AND THE CUE at Noel Coward

It’s 1964 and movie star Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn) is in rehearsals for a production of Hamlet on Broadway. The stakes could not be higher for the Welshman who’d tied the knot with Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) a mere three weeks before opening night. At the helm, Shakespearean titan Sir John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) whose classical delivery and poetic appreciation for the text, inform his directorial style and are entirely at odds with Burton’s ferocious modern vision.

The cast of The Motive and the Cue in the West End. © Mark DouetThe cast of The Motive and the Cue in the West End. © Mark Douet

Jack Thorne’s drama which opened at the National’s Lyttelton in May of this year, is drawn from various sources including letters and diary entries written by Gielgud, but the foundations and indeed the trigger for the play directed by Sam Mendes, were books written by two lesser cast members of the Broadway production, who witnessed first hand the trials and tribulations, confrontations and disagreements between director and star. Richard L Sterne’s John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton Playing Hamlet: A Journal of Rehearsals, may lack imagination in its title, but is full of the raw antagonism which feeds Thorne’s script. Similarly William Renfield’s Letters from an Actor, adds layers without which the playwright could only have guessed at the alcohol-infused confrontations and patronisingly delivered politesse which ultimately spawned the longest running Hamlet in Broadway’s history.

Letterboxing each scene, set designer Es Devlin has created a bleached ivory rehearsal room which on closing, enables actors to play scene snippets in front of the mask (allowing for impressively fast set changes behind). When the shutters reopen with dramatically different lighting states (courtesy of Jon Clark), the blousy red expanse of the opulent Burton-Taylor New York apartment is juxtaposed with scenes showing the much diminished (as in life) blue square of Gielgud‘s more modest living quarters.

Of the theatrical combatants, Gatiss succeeds in delivering much of Gielgud’s physical manner and vocal penchant for ethereal prose mixed with witty (and vulgar) asides. Flynn — all brooding bonhomie steeped in an alcoholic’s sudden anger — frequently lands Burton’s poisonous rasp which so powerfully enlivened characters like George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? The play’s title, taken from Hamlet’s soliloquy O, what a rogue and peasant slave am I — is delivered as the Danish Prince ponders his own reticence to act and considers the passions required to trigger and spur him to respond to his perilous situation. Here, the playwright uses that same section to finally bring understanding between the two men as they find in Burton’s sad early home-life in Port Talbot, the means for him to make sense of the mental turmoil required in delivering Shakespeare’s most oft-performed character.

In amongst the rehearsal scenes, there are playful nods to Elizabeth Taylor‘s efforts (over afternoon tea) to broker peace, love and understanding, and a tragically touching scene in which Gielgud — who had been arrested at a Chelsea public lavatory in 1953 and charged with persistently importuning male persons for immoral purposes — invites a male prostitute back to his apartment where they do little more than talk and tears are shed during a hug. There’s sufficient wryly-delivered humour (including excerpts of Noel Coward songs played at the start of each half) to appeal to the lovers of Gielgud’s era, whilst Burton’s representation of a rich and successful (but still angry and emotionally unsettled) young man, ticks the box for 60s kitchen sink angst.

This well-deserved West End transfer is a must see for any lovers of drama about drama, when being a star meant something significant and substantial careers in the spotlight were based on talent, not simply trivial notoriety.

The Motive and The Cue Tickets