The Motive and the Cue (National Theatre, Lyttelton)

Posted: May 3, 2023 in Theatre

Writer: Jack Thorne

Director: Sam Mendes


In William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the title character marvels at The Player King and wonders how it can be possible for him to find the motive and the cue for passion. In this new play, Jack Thorn takes inspiration from the Bard to investigate the bridges built by actors between theatrical make-believe and real life.

The action takes place during the rehearsal period for a 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet, starring Richard Burton and directed by Sir John Gielgud, whose own performance as the Prince of Denmark had been widely regarded as one of the greatest in history. Gielgud is also to appear himself, somewhat ironically, as the Ghost. The problem is that Gielgud’s Hamlet could never be Burton’s Hamlet, so where does the latter dig to find his motive, his cue and his passion?

It does not seem like too much of a stretch for Mark Gatiss to find the passion of the inimitable Gielgud, who is perhaps better remembered now for the film cameos of his later life than for his achievements in the classics. Gatiss captures his essence effortlessly, as witticisms and gaffes roll freely from his tongue, but he sulks like a slapped puppy when a very drunk Burton mocks his acting style and the insecurities of a lonely outsider come to the fore. This is particularly notable in a deeply touching scene in which Gielgud invites a male escort (Laurence Ubong Williams) to his hotel room without being sure of the reason why he has done so. Through it all Gatiss is simply magnificent.

Johnny Flynn gives a barnstorming performance as Burton, the son of a Welsh miner whose wild streak makes him the antithesis of Gielgud. His new bride Elizabeth Taylor, the biggest movie star on the planet at that time, has ambitions to hit the stage herself as Portia. She is barred from rehearsals, but wields influence on both leading actor and director from her luxury hotel suite. Tuppence Middleton is a delight, making Taylor smart, coarse and sexy; as the Hell-raising couple, she and Flynn light sparks off each other.

Part mischievous comedy and part docu-drama, Thorne’s play is uneven in places and it shows tendencies to wander away from its central themes. However, it provides a lush setting for many jewels and the writer’s passion for the art of theatre comes through clearly. Allan Corduner as Hume Cronyn (Polonius), Janie Dee as Eileen Herlie (Gertrude), Phoebe Horn as Linda Marsh (Ophelia), Luke Norris as William Redfield (Guildenstern) and David Tarkenter as Alfred Drake (Claudius) are among those who shine brightly, if briefly.

Fewer or shorter extracts from Shakespeare could help to resolve a few pacing issues in director Sam Mendes’ slick, but overlong production. Es Devlin’s design of an extremely grand rehearsal room fills the large Lyttelton Theatre stage, which then shrinks for scenes set in hotel rooms, all made distinctive by Jon Clark’s striking lighting designs.

At the final curtain, The Motive and the Cue leaves its mark as a funny and affectionate love letter from theatre to itself.

Performance date: 2 May 2023

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