One of my earliest memories as a student was seeing a photo of Richard Burton holding court in front of a room full of earnest and eager undergraduates, in the very same room where I was being grilled by my tutor, the late Francis Warner. He and Burton were buddies and I remember regretting that I wasn’t a couple of years older, in which case I would have been one of those keen undergrads hanging on to his every word, whilst Francis sat back basking in the reflected glow. So near, and yet so far.
I was reminded of that photo during the one of the last scenes in Jack Thorne’s new play The Motive and The Cue, where Burton and Elizabeth Taylor are holding a party for the cast of Hamlet, which he’s just about to open on Broadway, directed by Sir John Gielgud. Johnny Flynn’s Burton sits back in a big old armchair, crosses his legs and quietly manipulates all the conversation and merriment that he sees before him. If Mr Flynn hasn’t seen that photo of Burton giving a class at Oxford, then the similarity is not only uncanny, it’s miraculous.
But I’m getting ahead of myself as usual. Gielgud took on the task of directing Burton as Shakespeare’s Great Dane, and Thorne’s play takes us through the entire creative process from the Day 1 reading to Day 25 final rehearsal and first preview. We see the admiration given to the two, very different, creative geniuses; the relationships between the older, more experienced actors and the younger newbies, the differences of approach and style, the powerplays, the arguments, and the cunning ways of reaching a solution. The conflicts that develop between the mellifluously spoken, reserved authority of Gielgud versus the strident, belligerent, emotional Burton make for a fine battle of wits. I wasn’t aware until I saw the play that Burton’s Hamlet became the most successful production of the play ever to appear on Broadway. So whatever they did, they did it right.
The Motive and The Cue; not perhaps the snappiest of titles, but they are Hamlet’s own words. As Gielgud explains: “the motive is the spine of a role – the intellect and the reason – the cue is the passion – the inner switch which ignites the heart.” And at its heart, this play follows the search for that magical, intangible element that makes a role come to life – the search for one’s own Hamlet. Everyone’s is different, because we’re all different.
Jack Thorne has created a totally beautiful piece of work. Superbly structured, delicately written, with fascinating characters and the excitement for the audience of seeing the developing readiness in preparation for opening night. It’s littered with marvellous comedy that plays upon the preconceptions of the characters that we already have; we’d guessed, for example, that Gielgud would have faux-modesty about his achievements, that Burton would be brash and drunk, and that Taylor would be sex-on-legs. This carries on even into the supporting cast of recognisable names – for instance, there’s a lot of mickey-taking about Hume Cronyn (Polonius) for always appearing with his wife Jessica Tandy; indeed, I remember seeing them both at the Lyric Theatre in 1979 in The Gin Game.
The play is set in New York of course, and thus Gielgud and Burton are two fish out of water; Brits at work abroad, with all their colleagues being American. Burton, of course, can afford a swanky apartment; Gielgud retreats to a modest little hotel room. They represent two ends of the social scale; old well-bred family versus nouveau riche – a class war, if you like, without class ever being mentioned. You can easily see the upper-crust Gielgud, with all his splendid enunciation, set against the working-class miner’s son Burton, treating the rehearsal space like a bar room brawl. There are some beautiful comic moments that reflect this; Gielgud’s observation that Burton’s Hamlet would have murdered Claudius within a few minutes of meeting the Ghost, and Burton’s hilarious entry to Gertrude’s bedchamber, bellowing Mother, mother, mother! – followed by Gertrude’s distasteful Withdraw, I hear him coming. There are also some telling observations about fame and anonymity, experience versus innocence; one’s career peaking too soon, not to mention the thinly veiled rivalry between Johnny and Larry.
But what this charmingly likeable play also manages to do is to celebrate excellence all the way through. There’s only one source of negative energy in the show – Burton, when things are going wrong. His aggressive and destructive behaviour wins him no friends or support from the rest of the cast – in fact, there’s a splendid moment when Eileen Herlie who plays Gertrude gives him a terrific slap around the chops that the entire audience admires. But there’s a positive outcome after Liz Taylor gives Gielgud some insight into Burton’s background which he can use to make Burton properly find his own Hamlet. And, with a successful run on Broadway, it’s one of those rare things – a straight play with a happy ending!
The play is beautifully presented as a treat for the eyes and ears. Es Devlin’s rehearsal room set is stark and spacious, clearly lit, with a few comfortable touches around the edges but primarily designed to create an acting space with no hiding place. The theatrically artificial setting is enhanced by the curtains creating a boxy, proscenium space as they change from scene to scene; with lovely touches like the wilting flowers in the Burton/Taylor apartment, lit in a lurid red light. Scenes blend by rehearsing sections of Hamlet at the front of the curtain which then merge into the rest of the stage. It’s a very fluid, seamless transition from scene to scene. Each scene is introduced by an onstage projection telling us which day of the rehearsal process we’re at, with an appropriate Hamlet quote for good measure. Both acts start with a pithy piece of music from Sir Noel Coward – nothing particularly to do with the story, but delightfully appropriate, especially after the interval, with Why must the show go on?
Gielgud and Burton dominate proceedings, as you would expect, but the entire cast work perfectly together. Tuppence Middleton is superb as Elizabeth Taylor; dressed glamorously, immaculate in appearance, a dangerous concoction of sexually provocative and motherly protector. Janie Dee makes the most of her appearances as Eileen Herlie, brooking no nonsense from Burton, whilst being a good team player; plenty of opportunities for terrific comic timing and withering looks. Allan Corduner is excellent as the blustery, rather pompous Hume Cronyn, and Luke Norris also stands out as the rather miscast William Redfield, too experienced to play Guildenstern but keen to work with the big names.
Laurence Ubong Williams delivers a standout cameo as Hugh McHaffie, the gentleman caller that Gielgud has hired for a night of passion that turns into a much needed therapy session; Phoebe Horn portrays the young Linda Marsh (Ophelia) with a terrific feel for the nervousness of the lowest in the pecking order; and David Tarkenter absolutely looks the part of Alfred Drake (Claudius), perhaps a surprisingly insignificant role considering how important Claudius is to Hamlet and what a star Alfred Drake was of musical theatre at the time.
Johnny Flynn is brilliant as Burton; the character adopts so many attitudes and moods over the course of the play, and he gets them all spot-on. A louche braggart, a vindictive drunk, a humble searcher for the truth. His vocal timbre is superbly suggestive of Burton without being an impersonation, but his physical presence and body language completely bring to mind the original. It’s a fantastic performance. So too is Mark Gatiss as Gielgud; again not an impersonation but there’s something about the blend of his physicality and voice that makes you think you are seeing Sir John on the stage again. The flowing tones, the waspish wit, the impatience that lurks under the surface always hidden by a veneer of politeness – it’s all there. He really takes your breath away.
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such an easy, instant standing ovation at the National Theatre for a play, not a musical, in a matinee, not an evening. You could tell from the expressions of the actors at curtain call that they know they are trustees of a fantastic play. Surely this will have a life after Lyttelton.
Production photos by Mark Douet