The Motive and the Cue at the National Theatre
To be or not to be inspired by The Motive and the Cue? It’s not really a question, having witnessed this thrilling clash between Mark Gatiss’s John Gielgud and Johnny Flynn’s Richard Burton. While Burton’s tumultuous life with Elizabeth Taylor is more than well-known, his conflict with Gielgud – who directed Burton’s Hamlet in their 1964 Broadway production – might be less notorious, but is clearly equally worthy of attention. With terrifically written dialogue and flawless portrayals of the contemporary characters, Jack Thorne’s dramatisation of the events is powerful and entertaining in equal measure.
The plot centres around the confrontation between two very different ways of thinking and acting. Gielgud, a highly regarded actor past his prime, historically has a firm grip on his actors and a wealth of examples of stellar acting to fall back on, whereas Burton is the newcomer from a humble background, who has recently become world-famous and whose blunt and bold character is very different from what Gielgud is accustomed to.
The result is of course a clash of many sorts: of class, generations, theatre methods. It’s beautifully written, and all characters feel genuine in Thorne’s script; Burton and Gielgud are wonderfully witty – as is the portrayal of Liz Taylor by Tuppence Middleton. Naturally, Burton was notoriously idiosyncratic and consequently sometimes tough to work with, and this aspect is brought to life beautifully in the play.
This is particularly thanks to the stellar performances. Gatiss as Gielgud is hilariously quick-witted, calm and strong when he needs to be, while not feeling the need to force that persona. Flynn’s Burton is equally apt. He gets the voice and accent just right – even if he looks rather different form his real-life counterpart – and his portrayal features the same over-the-top self-confident persona that the real-life Burton had, while inevitably letting the cracks betray some of the underlying vulnerabilities, given his humble background. In both cases, there’s very little that remains to be desired.
The Motive and the Cue is a great success. It’s interspersed with snippets from Hamlet, lovingly produced by director Sam Mendes, and gives a refreshing insight into the minds of great actors and the ways in which a play might come to life during rehearsals. An easy recommendation, all the way.
Photo: Mark Douet
The Motive and the Cue is at the National Theatre from 2nd May until 15th July 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.