4 stars out of 5
A witty, deft, touching evocation of a fascinating, fraught encounter that captures the mood of those times
Aplay delving behind the scenes of the 1964 Hamlet that starred Richard Burton, under the direction of John Gielgud? It sounds at once like a safe bet – because these are names to conjure with – and a high risk. That Hamlet was a record-breaking hot-ticket on Broadway back in the day. What with Jack Thorne scripting and Sam Mendes directing, The Motive and the Cue has caused a stampede at the National’s box-office too, assisted by beguiling casting: Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn as the two acting titans.
Even so, the suspicion lingered that the pair’s innate appeal – with Tuppence Middleton playing Elizabeth Taylor, Burton’s then newly wed wife, adding tantalisation – could only woo our interest. Once won, might we be in for something weary, stale, flat and unprofitable? This reconstructive drama concludes on the ‘opening night’; it’s not so much the play or the circus of attention around it, as the rehearsal process that’s the thing.
It’s a pleasure to report that the evening is a palpable hit. This is a witty, deft, touching evocation of a fascinating, fraught encounter that captures the mood of those times, the character of those men. Compressing events, Thorne weaves fact with judicious fiction, taking notable liberties including a sweary confrontation. But what he achieves is the truth, or what feels like it – a portrait of two artists at very different points of their illustrious careers.
Gatiss is to the manner born as the quietly pained old knight. Gielgud is at the awkward age of 60, his gilded heyday, and own triumphs in the role, a memory; he’s in a no man’s land as the new generation rise up and cast the old guard aside. A gangly figure, his chin back, as if always aiming his words to the gallery, Gatiss’s Sir John mixes regal poise with a bashful air of repression.
We can see why, surrounded by Americans, including a sceptical Guildenstern (Luke Norris’s William Redfield, who became one of two key documenters of the rehearsals) he was venerable but vulnerable. We are seduced by his erudition but can grasp why Johnny Flynn’s Welsh boyo – at first composed and drawling, later drunk and frayed – would resist the headmaster with his profusion of scattershot advice and repeat-after-me line-readings.
But, ay, there’s the rub. The beauty of the evening is that it shows the mysteries of the rehearsal room, how different chemistries can mix badly but also the alchemy of revelation. Flynn doesn’t give us the full rugged incarnation of Burton but his gathering doubt and irritation feels authentic – and in struggling, sardonically and even viciously against his mentor, he unlocks, with him, the filial complexes from his life that can feed the art.
Despite its stylish, monumental design (Es Devlin) which affords sundry vignettes, from hotel gatherings to haunting excerpts from Hamlet in performance, the core of this is a very intimate creative tussle – some of the cast seem almost decorative. I’d love to see more of Middleton’s Taylor, smart in every sense; funny, shrewd. Perhaps this love letter to theatre and its fashions now needs the screen treatment to lend it a well-deserved touch of immortality.
Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn are mesmerising in this absorbing real-life tale of Gielgud and Burton’s Broadway Hamlet
“Hamlet? Must go and see it, rattle our jewellery. Someone famous is in it, you know.” So Sir John Gielgud, in sardonic mood, sums up the box-office allure of classical theatre. But of course, in his own acclaimed renditions of Shakespeare’s most famous role – and in the 1964 Broadway version that he directed, in which a by-then white-hot Richard Burton starred – the aim was to create something rather more profound than a conversational cocktail-party canapé for the chattering classes. Jack Thorne’s new play delves into that troubled production, beginning on the first day of rehearsals and ending on opening night, and pits Gielgud, a revered artistic veteran becalmed in the career doldrums, against a passionately modern Burton, whose celebrity swagger masks an insecurity about his own worthiness.
There are hefty questions here about the value and meaning of art, and theatre specifically – some of them a little too bluntly posed. But the great pleasure of Sam Mendes’ production is its performances, with Mark Gatiss a glorious Gielgud and Johnny Flynn smoulderingly charismatic and turbulent as Burton. As the rift opens between them and painfully widens, they rebound between the twin mirrors of life and art, which reflect and refract their clashing talents, backgrounds and sensibilities. It is an unhurried contemplation of the creative process, but fascinating, and crammed with colour and personality: a dual of egos in which not just the play, but the two men’s sense of their selves is at stake.
Es Devlin’s elegant design opens and closes like a camera shutter, reminding us that Burton and Elizabeth Taylor – to whom he had just, for the first time, got married – were accustomed to living their lives through a lens: the paparazzi variety, as well as the cinematic. As the set’s black aperture opens and closes, we glide from airy rehearsal room to the deep-pink, flower-filled hotel suite where Flynn’s Burton and Tuppence Middleton’s silken Taylor play sexually charged games of cat and mouse and knock back booze with an alacrity that faintly foreshadows their later collaboration on Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?.
By contrast, the private moments of Gatiss’ Gielgud are blue-tinged (the lush lighting is by Jon Clark), whether we find him in an anteroom at lunchtime, musing and munching a solitary sandwich, or shyly ushering some hired beefcake (Laurence Ubong Williams) into his more modest accommodation. Scenes are linked by video captions as time runs out, each accompanied by a Hamlet quote (Day 11: “To me it is a prison” marks a particularly fractious point). History relates that the Gielgud/Burton Hamlet turned out to be a commercial smash. Whether it was, for either, the personal success that they hoped for is here left infinitely more ambiguous.
Gielgud and Burton begin by exchanging flatteries before the assembled company; Flynn’s Burton offers performative obeisance before the venerated theatrical knight and Gatiss’ Gielgud urbanely imprecates him, in cut-glass tones, not to “stick flowers up my bum”. But already, there is tension: in a room full of actors where the rivalries and political undercurrents mimic a Shakespearean royal court, which of them is king? Janie Dee’s Eileen Herlie – playing Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother, although as she tartly points out, she is only seven years Burton’s senior – is a steadying, patrician influence. William Redfield (Luke Norris), a fast-rising youngster playing Guildenstern (whose memoir partly inspired Thorne’s play), craves more of Gielgud’s attention, only to be gently, crushingly informed: “I can’t make you a better actor.”
Johnny Flynn is mesmerising as Burton, sexy even in vest and Y-fronts, his Welsh accent most prominent when he’s angry
Gielgud and Burton’s own relationship is in part that of a father and son, tinged with the confidences they share: Gielgud was at once “indifferent” to the stockbroker father who never understood him, yet “I loved him”; Burton remembers his alcoholic miner dad on an endless round from pit to pub and back again. With his mellifluous delivery – what Flynn’s Burton dismisses as his “old-fashioned, sing-song approach” – Gatiss’ Gielgud is, too, in some respects dead King Hamlet, still haunting the Elsinore battlements, the persistent ghost of an old, outmoded theatrical style. At times he’s even Claudius, clinging on to power; there are certainly moments when it looks as if Flynn’s Burton might kill him.
It’s great fun to watch the pair spark, as Gielgud struggles to guide Burton, and the latter bridles, imagining in every note a shaming hint that he’ll never be good enough. “You shout wonderfully. Both you and Larry,” remarks Gielgud drily after one soliloquy, in an exquisitely aimed faint-praise potshot at both Burton and his arch-rival Olivier, whose own Hamlet, to Gielgud’s envy, won him an Oscar.
Gatiss – an actor with a supreme skill for pathos – lends Gielgud a tender vulnerability as well as a waspish, aphoristic wit: he is sweet and dry as a slightly stale teacake. And Flynn is mesmerising as Burton, sexy even in vest and Y-fronts, his Welsh accent most prominent when he’s angry. He has a streak of savage cruelty, dismissing the Shakespearean ambitions of Middleton’s poised, glamorous Taylor even as he’s ripping off her knickers, and subjecting Gatiss’s Gielgud to a terrible drunken public humiliation.
Sometimes Thorne’s writing feels a little over-deliberate, and the supporting players are just that, buzzing about on the periphery of the limelight. But Mendes’ production, although initially a little slow to find its rhythm, is always absorbing – theatre about theatre, and about striving to achieve, in this ephemeral art form, a kind of immortality.
There’s been no shortage of stage portrayals of real-life VIPs in the past couple of years. Andy Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat went toe to toe in Anthony McCarten’s The Collaboration, Gore Vidal and William F Buckley slugged it out in Best of Enemies, James Graham’s superb evocation of the Sixties culture wars, and a young Sidney Poitier is the subject of Ryan Calais Cameron’s Retrograde, at the Kiln in London.
Jack Thorne’s thoughtful, often wickedly droll play about Richard Burton and John Gielgud’s battle of wits during a 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet is a distinguished addition to the celebrity genre. Immaculately directed by Sam Mendes, it’s a poised study of how two actors of radically different temperaments sparred in the run-up to opening night. Gielgud — who was directing — represented an old school tradition. Burton, young, arrogant and hard-drinking, was at the peak of his career, although his marriage to Elizabeth Taylor seemed to be making more headlines than his acting.
Some of the raw material for Thorne’s script comes from books written by lesser known members of the cast. Thorne has deftly woven the elements together, while Mendes gets first-rate performances out of his two leading players. Mark Gatiss captures all of Gielgud’s self-effacing stratagems and “dear boy” charm. Bumbling around the rehearsal room like a curate who has mislaid his sermon, he constantly searches for ways of coping with his star’s ego. As Burton, Johnny Flynn grows into his role with each scene.
Tuppence Middleton takes on the equally challenging task of making Elizabeth Taylor both plausible and sympathetic. In the underwritten role of Eileen Herlie, the actress playing Gertrude, the ever-fabulous Janie Dee quietly steals scenes.
Mendes briskly switches between Es Devlin’s imposing set designs. The rehearsal room is suitably bland. Burton and Taylor’s hotel suite is all lurid pinks, while Gielgud’s inner sanctum is bathed in a chillier blue. The scene where the grand old man decorously plays host to a male prostitute (delicately portrayed by Laurence Ubong Williams) proves almost unbearably poignant.
True, a vein of sentimentality seeps into the very final scenes as the two thespians say farewell to each other. And I’m beginning to lose count of the number of directors who use Bach’s Goldberg Variations as a linking device. But those are quibbles. Besides, Noël Coward turns up on the soundtrack too, as does some hip jazz piano. Will this play be a hit? I think so, dear boy, I think so.
To July 15, nationaltheatre.org.uk
5 stars out of 5
There are fireworks and fights aplenty in The Motive and the Cue, but the image that lingers from Jack Thorne’s brilliant, compassionate new play is of two household names, John Gielgud and Richard Burton, in an empty rehearsal room wrangling, quietly and honestly, with what it is that has brought them — and us — to this point.
“You like the art,” says Gielgud. “That relationship between the audience and the stage . . . I don’t think there is any other art form in the world where minds meet so beautifully. One thousand people, sat together, in communion with what’s in front of them.”
That simple truth drives Thorne’s play and Sam Mendes’s rich, witty production: the hunger for understanding that can produce those electrifying moments of connection between actor and audience. And yet for long periods in The Motive and the Cue, the hope of arriving at that moment of alchemy seems increasingly forlorn.
The play peers into the famously combustible rehearsal period for Gielgud’s 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet with Burton as the Danish prince. Burton, at 38, is a screen superstar, whose marriage to Elizabeth Taylor has propelled him into the celebrity stratosphere, seeking to stamp his mark on this Everest of stage roles; Gielgud a former legend looking to transform himself for a changing world. As with Hamlet himself, it’s a task that threatens to undo them.
Burton (Johnny Flynn) brings tempest, charisma and pure, thrilling instinct; Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) favours analysis, reflection, phrasing, compares one speech to Handel. Rehearsals become a wrestling match between the old and the new, with the rest of the cast watching on aghast as Burton lampoons his director in one drunken outburst.
And yet. History tells us that this would become the longest-running Hamlet ever on Broadway. So how did that breakthrough happen? Just as Shakespeare’s plays delight in stealing into the corridors of power and the chambers of kings, so Thorne and Mendes smuggle us into the rehearsal room, into Burton and Taylor’s sumptuous apartment, into Gielgud’s lonely eyrie (all elegantly realised in Es Devlin’s set of magically appearing cell-like boxes).
Gielgud, picking up Hamlet’s preoccupation with acting, set his modern-dress production in the rehearsal room; Thorne and Mendes, focusing on rehearsals for that production, add yet another layer, creating a kind of Russian doll effect — play stacked within play stacked within play. The great skill of the evening is that, for all that artifice, it delivers moving truths about loneliness, frailty, and the great consolation of art.
Rumbling through it all is Hamlet’s own keen awareness of role-play and the power of theatre to “hold a mirror up to nature”. Mendes stages the pair’s moments of doubt quite brilliantly, marooning them briefly against a black backdrop before the busy world around them slides open again.
And then there’s perhaps the biggest irony of all — that we are not, of course, watching Gielgud and Burton, but Gatiss and Flynn bringing their own skill and craft to making these legendary artists walk again. Gatiss is superb: with that imperious tilt of the chin and sharp, darting glance, he catches Gielgud’s mannerisms precisely. But he also brings great sadness and depth to the part: Burton’s vigour and easy sexuality bring him face to face with his age, his emotional reticence, the fact of his own sexuality being criminalised. It’s a beautiful, delicate, compassionate performance.
Flynn catches Burton’s energy, his rasping delivery, seeming to deliver speeches in rumbling bursts and torrents, though his voice lacks Burton’s mercurial musicality. But he too becomes very moving: in the scene where director and actor finally unlock the part, Flynn’s Burton brings his own insecurities and damaged past to Hamlet’s famous soliloquy “To be or not to be” and suddenly you see that alchemy in action.
There’s a lovely performance too from Tuppence Middleton as Taylor — gorgeous, sensuous, above all deeply shrewd. It is she who brokers peace between the quarrelling Burton and Gielgud, she who suggests the way forward. Though other characters remain peripheral, a fine cast make rich cameos of them, delighting in depicting the earthy mix of craft and graft that goes into building those fleeting moments of connection.