The Motive and the Cue by Jack Thorne, directed by Sam Mendes

I’ve got several theatre trips coming up, so rather than cram them into my Watchlist posts, I’m giving my trip last night a separate review.

Gatiss & Flynn

Jack Thorne’s prolific career continues with this new play directed by Sam Mendes, starring Mark Gatiss, Johnny Flynn and Tuppence Middleton. The Motive and the Cue (the title will explained in the second half). tells the story of how Sir John Gielguid and Richard Burton got together, with Gielguid directing, to put on a pared-back production of Hamlet on Broadway in 1964 which went on to be the longest running production of Hamlet in Broadway history. It opened on May 2 and runs at the National Theatre’s Lyttleton until mid-July, but hurry if you want to see it live, it’s nearly sold out, but I’m sure there’ll be a screening as they are filming it soon.

The play begins on Day 1 of rehearsals and takes us through the whole process, finishing on the night of the first performance at the theatre. Rehearsals didn’t go smoothly! Gielguid and Burton came from totally different schools of acting, and the two clashed constantly for most of the rehearsals, Burton regularly turning up sloshed and shouting his soliloquies – to which Gielguid says, ‘You shout wonderfully.’ The scene in the second half where Burton finally finds his Hamlet was superb. Away from the rehearsal room, we visit Burton’s hotel suite, where his newly married wife – Liz Taylor – is getting bored out of her brain, but is determined to support her husband. The parties are long and loud, and often end up with Burton in his vest and Y-fronts drunkenly spouting Shakespeare and getting distracted by Liz, now in her negligee.

At the pre-opening night party. Tuppence Middleton centre left.

The staging is superb. With three nested sets which the curtains envelope, just like the screen adjusting size at the beginning of a movie or letterboxing on a TV. The change between is slick with the curtain coming down as an actor or actors come in front of it for just thirty seconds or so before pulling back up in their letterboxed (or not) format to reveal one of the three sets. The smallest blue one is multi-purpose being the lunch room at the rehearsal studio and Gielguid’s apartment, (where he has a rather moving encounter with a rent-boy!). The medium red set is the Burton’s suite. The biggest set is the rehearsal room, around the borders of which reside the various chairs, sofa, tables and scant other props. Great care has also been taken to recreate the sartorial looks of the cast, with roll necks and tweed coat for Flynn, corduroy and cardigans for Gatiss, and tailored glam for Middleton.

The Gielguid/Burton Hamlet was experimental, presented in rehearsal format – non-formal modern dress, with as few props as possible. Two of the actors in it kept diaries, and these helped Thorne write his play, notably William Redfield (Guildenstern), who took a small part just to be in the company of its great director and lead. Also in the Broadway cast were veteran actors Hume Cronyn as Polonius and Eileen Herlie as Gertrude, played with great humour and gravitas by Allan Corduner and Janie Dee.

Finally, I come to the three leads. Mark Gatiss was perfect as Gielguid – he not only looked like him, he sounded like him, without ever descending into an outright impersonation. It took a while to warm to Johnny Flynn; he wisely didn’t go full-Welsh, but did capture Burton’s raspiness, delivery style, emphasis, swagger and occasional vulnerability. I don’t really know when Liz Taylor lost her English accent, but MIddleton did her as very American. I read in one review that she could have ‘purred more’, and I tend to agree, but she was great, as were all the supporting actors.

It would be nigh impossible for this production to meet the amazing heights of my last theatre trip – to see the Lehman Brothers Trilogy – also directed by Mendes, but it comes close enough. I can recommend this play as a thoroughly enjoyable evening, with a central amazing performance by Mark Gatiss.

If you can get a ticket – go! If not, there’s always the superb Groundhog Day, with music by Tim Minchin, being revived at the Old Vic this summer with its original lead in Andy Karl who was brillilant (see my original review here).

6 thoughts on “The Motive and the Cue by Jack Thorne, directed by Sam Mendes

  1. A Life in Books says:

    Hoping this will be screened at my local Picturehouse where I went to see Andrew Graham’s Best of Enemies today. I’d recommend it if you haven’t already seen it. Not his best but interesting and well worth seeing nevertheless.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      This is a must-see screening when it comes! I saw Best of Enemies the other week, interesting but bitty I thought, although I particularly liked Zachary Quinto as Gore Vidal.

  2. Lory says:

    How interesting! Theatre within theatre. I don’t think I’ll be able to get to see live theatre in England for some time, but at least now we have some streaming options. This would be one I’d probably pay to watch.

    • AnnaBookBel says:

      They’re filming it in a couple of weeks time, so you’ll be able to stream it eventually from the NT Live website. The rehearsal process was fascinating, and of course we got to see chunks of Hamlet read various ways too in it.

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