22 April 2023
THE MOTIVE AND THE CUE (National Theatre, Olivier) Review

This is a brand new play from Jack Thorne about the 1964 Broadway production of “Hamlet” with Richard Burton in the title role under the direction of John Gielgud.  The production itself was a great success commercially, but it took an incredible amount of effort from both men, as well as others involved, to get it there.  This play explores the tensions and the relationships hidden behind the scenes.

Mark Gatiss absolutely steals the show as Gielgud.  Not only are his mannerisms spot-on, but he also imbues Gieldgud with grace, persistence, and a touch of sadness.  During the scene in his hotel room (won’t say more so not to spoil it for you), you could hear a pin drop, and quite a lot of people around me were crying.  It is such a strong performance that, even when others fall short on occasion, we remain connected to the play.

Johnny Flynn as Burton left me slightly unconvinced.  Although a friend who saw the show a few days after me thought that Flynn’s gestures and inflections were very Burton-like, the sum of individual parts didn’t end up to a cohesive whole for me.  Somehow he wasn’t as imposing as Burton was (I say “was”, but, obviously, that’s purely from what I’d seen of him in interviews; it’s not like I ever met the man).  Burton was 39 when working on Hamlet with Gieldgud.  Flynn is 40, but looks significantly younger than Burton did.  It’s a fine performance that Flynn put in, but, being placed opposite Gatiss, the gap in acting range is pretty visible here.

Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor was a complete fail for me.  Taylor had oodles of charm and swagger.  From what I’d read and heard about her, she was the life of every party, at the centre of every conversation, and one people gravitated to as soon as they were around her.  In contrast, Middledon has none of this.  Her accent fades in and out, which I found distracting.  Middleton is exactly the same in her scene with Gatiss, where Taylor is meant to come across as caring but shrewd as she tries to repair Gielgud’s relationship with Burton, as she is in the celebration scene where she’s being a cheery hostess swinging a drink in her hand.  She doesn’t look much like Taylor either, so not quite sure what happened with casting here.

The rest of the ensemble cast are joyous to watch.  Allan Corduner, Janie Dee, Luke Norris, and David Tarkenter brilliantly capture a cast of stars who clash and bicker constantly, yet have deep underlying respect and affection for each other.

I quite liked Thorne’s text here.  The play is obviously based on true events, but everything is snipped and spliced and arranged in a way that doesn’t let it get bogged down in the finery of historical details.  We get a story and feeling of genuinely sitting in the corner of “Hamlet”‘s rehearsal room.

Sam Mendes’ direction is on-point, as always (perhaps with the exception of getting Middleton to channel more Taylor).  Es Devlin’s set is a clever delight with a few surprises.

The show depicted may’ve been known as Burton’s “Hamlet”, but this is certainly Gatiss’ moment in the sun.

Cheapskate enjoyment value: £5 (mostly for Mark Gatiss).

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