The Motive and the Cue is a fierce and funny new play by Jack Thorne, the acclaimed writer of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and His Dark Materials. Directed by Sam Mendes, the Oscar-winning filmmaker of American Beauty and 1917, the play stars Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton, Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud, and Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor. The play is inspired by two books written by members of the company that staged the groundbreaking and scandalous production of Hamlet in 1964, which featured Burton as Hamlet, Gielgud as the director and the ghost, and Taylor as Burton’s glamorous new wife. The play offers a glimpse into the politics of a rehearsal room and the relationship between art and celebrity, as two generations of theatre legends clash and collaborate to bring Shakespeare’s masterpiece to life. The play asks: What makes a great actor? What makes a great director? And what makes a great play?
The 1964 production of Hamlet was a landmark event in the history of theatre. It was the first time that a Broadway show was filmed live and broadcast to cinemas across the world, reaching an audience of millions. It was also the first time that a modern-dress version of Hamlet was performed, with Burton wearing a turtleneck sweater and jeans, and Gielgud wearing a suit and tie. The production was a daring experiment that challenged the conventions and the expectations of the audience, and provoked mixed reactions from the critics and the public. The production was also a showcase for the talents and the egos of Burton, Gielgud, and Taylor, who were at the peak of their fame and influence. Burton was the most popular movie star in the world, who had recently married Taylor, the most beautiful woman in the world, after a scandalous affair that made headlines around the globe. Gielgud was the most respected Shakespearean actor and director of his generation, who had won an Oscar for his role in Becket, the same film that earned Burton his fifth nomination. Taylor was the highest-paid actress in Hollywood, who had won two consecutive Oscars for Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, the latter co-starring Burton. The production was a rare opportunity for them to work together and to challenge themselves in a different medium and genre.
The main theme of the play is the motive and the cue of the actors and the director, which refers to the reasons and the signals that guide their actions and decisions. The play explores the motivations and the inspirations of the characters, both personal and professional, as they embark on the ambitious and risky project of staging Hamlet. For Burton, the motivation is to prove himself as a serious actor, to escape the typecasting of his Hollywood roles, and to impress his wife and his mentor. For Gielgud, the motivation is to reinvent himself as a director, to experiment with new forms and techniques, and to pass on his legacy to his protégé. For Taylor, the motivation is to support her husband, to learn from his craft, and to enjoy the glamour and the drama of the theatre world. The play also examines the cues and the influences of the characters, both internal and external, as they face the challenges and the pressures of the production. For Burton, the cues are his instincts and his emotions, which often clash with Gielgud’s instructions and expectations. For Gielgud, the cues are his vision and his authority, which often conflict with Burton’s opinions and suggestions. For Taylor, the cues are her charm and her presence, which often distract and disrupt the rehearsals and the performances.
The cue, on the other hand, is the trigger that sets off their actions and reactions, which can be a word, a gesture, a look, or a sound. The play shows how the cue can be a source of conflict or harmony, of misunderstanding or insight, of comedy or tragedy. The play also examines how the cue can change over time, depending on the context, the mood, and the intention of the characters.
The play is not only a fascinating portrait of three iconic figures, but also a witty and insightful commentary on the nature of theatre and the art of acting. The play contrasts the different styles and approaches of Burton and Gielgud, who represent the clash between naturalism and classicism, between cinema and theatre, between passion and intellect. The play also exposes the backstage drama and the technical challenges of putting on a show, such as the lighting, the sound, the costumes, and the props. The play celebrates the power and the magic of theatre, but also reveals its limitations and its illusions. The play asks: What is the difference between reality and fiction, between truth and lies, between life and art?
The play has received rave reviews from critics and audiences alike, who praised its humour, its emotion, its intelligence, and its relevance. The Guardian called it “a thrilling rollercoaster of high drama” and “a palpable hit”. The Independent described it as “funny, witty and utterly compelling”. The Times said it was “a love letter to theatre, but in the end it feels a little too Hollywood”. The play has also been nominated for several awards, including the Olivier Award for Best New Play and the Evening Standard Award for Best Play. The play has also attracted the attention of some of the original cast and crew members of the 1964 production, who shared their memories and their opinions of the play. Some of them praised the play for its accuracy and its insight, while others criticised it for its exaggeration and its distortion.
I had the opportunity to watch the play at the National Theatre and to interview some of the cast and crew members. I was impressed by the performances of the actors, who captured the essence and the charisma of their characters, without resorting to mere imitation. I was also impressed by the direction of Sam Mendes, who created a dynamic and engaging staging, with a minimalist set and a clever use of projections and music. I was also impressed by the writing of Jack Thorne, who managed to balance the historical facts and the artistic fiction, the comedy and the drama, the personal and the universal. I asked them about their research process, their creative choices, their challenges and their joys of working on the play. They told me about their admiration and their affection for their characters, their collaboration and their friendship with each other, their passion and their respect for theatre. They also told me about their hopes and their fears for the future of theatre, especially in the context of the pandemic and the budget cuts.
The Motive and the Cue is a play that appeals to both theatre lovers and theatre newcomers, to both fans and critics of Burton, Gielgud, and Taylor, to both admirers and sceptics of Shakespeare. It is a play that entertains and educates, that provokes and inspires, that makes us laugh and cry. It is a play that reminds us of the importance and the beauty of theatre, and of the questions and the answers that it can offer. It is a play that deserves to be seen and heard, and to be remembered and celebrated.
The play has received mostly positive reviews and enthusiastic applause from the critics and the audience. The Independent’s theatre critic Jessie Thompson declared, “It’s Gatiss, as Gielgud, who owns this show. He deserves all the superlatives for a performance of restrained, quiet dignity, laced with sharp wit.” The Evening Standard described the production as “elegant” and “a love letter to theatre”. The Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish hailed the play as “a witty, deft, touching evocation of a fascinating, fraught encounter that captures the mood of those times”. However, some reviewers were less impressed by the play, such as Arifa Akbar of The Guardian, who praised the performances but noted “Ultimately, this play-about-the-play leaves us wishing we had been there to see Burton in the real thing.” The play has also generated a lot of buzz and debate on social media, with many fans and celebrities sharing their opinions and experiences. The play has been a commercial success as well, selling out its run at the National Theatre and transferring to the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End. The play has also been nominated for several awards, including the Olivier Award for Best New Play and the Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Director.
The Motive and the Cue is a brilliant and captivating play that explores the making of Burton and Gielgud’s Hamlet, one of the most iconic and controversial productions of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The play delves into the politics of a rehearsal room and the relationship between art and celebrity, as it portrays the clashes and collaborations between two generations of theatre legends. The play also raises questions about what makes a great actor, a great director, and a great play, and how they are motivated and influenced by their personal and professional circumstances. The play features superb performances by Johnny Flynn, Mark Gatiss, and Tuppence Middleton, who bring to life the complex and charismatic characters of Richard Burton, John Gielgud, and Elizabeth Taylor. The play is directed by Sam Mendes, who creates a stunning and immersive theatrical experience that transports the audience to the 1960s New York. The play is a must-see for anyone who loves theatre, history, and fame, and who wants to witness a masterclass of acting and directing. The Motive and the Cue is not just a play about Hamlet, it is a play about theatre itself.