Review: THE MOTIVE AND THE CUE, National Theatre

Jack Thorne reminds us all why we went to the theatre and why we continue to go.

By: May. 03, 2023
Review: THE MOTIVE AND THE CUE, National Theatre
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Review: THE MOTIVE AND THE CUE, National Theatre

At the start of the second half of The Motive and The Cue Sir John Gielgud dines opposite Elizabeth Taylor over breakfast. She is the young starlet of the silver screen whilst he, approaching old age with a suitcase full of memories, anecdotes, and anxieties, fears he is past his prime. A paradigm shift is under way.

But Jack Thorne's new play is much more than a hat tip to acting legends of the past. It's his 8 ½, an existential mirror of a piece which looks itself, and its audience, in the eye to ask why. Why watch a four-hundred year old play about a moody Danish prince? Why theatre?

For Thorne, director Sam Mendes, and set designer Es Devlin, the last question is especially pertinent. All three have wildly lucrative and successful creative careers beyond the stage. Like prodigal sons they return to the National.

The Motive and The Cue is a thrilling document of the real-life disarray behind the 1964 production of Hamlet in New York. Helmed by Gielgud but with Richard Burton, hot off Cleopatra - and his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor, in the driving seat as The Dane. We dive into tumultuous rehearsals and backstage drama.

Once proclaimed by Kenneth Tynan as "Olivier's natural successor," Burton is fierce, with the raw energy of a wild rhino. Johnny Flynn imbues him with brattish arrogance. He struts with James Dean like nonchalance. He hasn't learned his lines. Mark Gatiss' Gielgud on the other hand is a pompous effete. He knows the script by heart. Can he tame Burton? Or will he be trampled in a one-man stampede?

Flynn has a sure-fire blast exploring Burton's animalistic allure (and has the voice pitch-perfect). But it's Gatiss that forms the beating heart of the show. Flickering from immense warmth, razor tongued wit, to desperate despondency and in seconds, all as seamless and smooth as spreading warm butter. It's truly a career defining turn.

The two butt heads and bicker to the chagrin of the rest of the cast. But it goes beyond the clash of egos and genius, Burton is the new age of Hollywood that spells death for Gielgud. He is not just old news, but the last of his kind facing redundancy in the golden age of Hollywood.

The threat is a constant and painfully familiar one. Many have prophesised doom for the industry in the face of Netflix et al. Yet we are still here. Sam Mendes knows why: the production may have a cinematic sheen but a quasi-religious magnetism pulsates beneath the surface.

Devlin's chic white set is framed by a wide lens cinema scope. Scenes flow into one another almost unconsciously, woven together via extracts from Hamlet. Shakespeare's language is left to hover in the room like a holy relic for us to worship. Gielgud even compares a monologue to Zadok the Priest in a seemingly innocuous moment only for Handel's music to blare triumphant at the end as Burton walks into the light to finally perform.

Through thick and thin it's that mysticism that brings us, Thorne, Mendes, Devlin, back every time. Even if Throne's writing, as gorgeously vivid as it is, is slightly too gleeful in its self-referential indulgence, it is an undeniably magnificent tour de force. Theatre should thank its lucky stars for Thorne. He has reminded us all why we went to the theatre and why we continue to go.

The Motive and the Cue plays at the Olivier stage at The National Theatre until 15 July

Photo Credit: Mark Douet


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