The Motive and the Cue

by Jack Thorne
National Theatre (Lyttleton), London

Another spring season at the National, another brilliant new production. We're all familiar with the concept of a play-within-a-play. But Jack Thorne's The Motive and the Cue, directed by Sam Mendes, is a play-about-a-play. Specifically, the celebrated 1964 production of Hamlet starring Richard Burton and directed by John Gielgud. A production that would go on smash box office records on Broadway.

Thorne takes us through the twenty-five day rehearsal period in New York, from first read to first night. In the process, we get a wonderful insight into Burton (Johnny Flynn), a brash, wildly successful film star married to the equally famous Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton), and Gielgud (Mark Gatiss), one of the most venerated actors, directors and Shakespearean interpreters of his generation. Naturally, the two men clash and, in so doing, push each other to deeper emotional truths. 

Gatiss brings a wonderful empathy to Gielgud, a closeted homosexual who knows his star is fading as the new generation steps in. In an especially moving scene, he breaks down in the arms of a rent boy he invites up to his hotel room, allowing himself to simply be held. Flynn in turn lends an impish, comic energy to Burton, the binge-drinking playboy who rehearses lines in his underwear and has fixed ideas of how his Hamlet should be.  

Sam Mendes's production has a smooth filmic sweep that embraces both the epic and intimate, moving us from raucous cast parties to quiet confrontations. The play takes time to find its feet and feels a little showy in parts but snaps together smoothly in its second half, making one long to watch this great 'rehearsal room' production we've been building up to.

The Crystalwords score: 3.5/5


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