THEATRE REVIEW: The Motive And The Cue starring Johnny Flynn, Mark Gatiss & Tuppence Middleton at the National Theatre

By Neil Durham


WHEN?: Saturday 22 April, opens 2 May running to 15 July 2023 RUNTIME: 160 minutes (including a 20-minute interval)

Mark Gatiss (ITVX’s Nolly) is 1 of our finest character actors and here plays Sir John Gielgud directing Richard Burton in Hamlet in 1964 on Broadway.

  • Read on for reasons including how The Motive should be more confident of its worth and rely less heavily on Shakespeare’s greatest hits

Jack Thorne’s (The End Of History, Royal Court) new play spends much of its time in the rehearsal room as we learn a down-on-his-uppers Gielgud only took the gig because it was the best offer he’d had in some time.

Johnny Flynn’s (True West, Vaudeville) Burton however is struggling to find his Hamlet, infuriating the rest of the cast with his vanity and drunkenness and despairing at Gielgud’s seemingly vague direction.

We would have liked to have seen more of Tuppence Middleton’s sexually voracious Liz Taylor who likes a drink, feels more at home on screen than on stage yet is empathetic enough to find some common ground between warring star and director that enables them to find the key to unlock Burton’s Hamlet.

The emotional highlights of this piece inevitably revolve around Gatiss’ rounded portrayal of Gielgud who can be very funny, often at his own expense, yet struggles with his homosexuality and, in a moving scene with a male prostitute, bursts into tears when offered a simple hug.

Thorne’s writing is very theatrical which may put off some but it is beautifully structured if a little heavy on the Hamlet greatest hits set pulled from its pages.

Director Sam Mendes uses 3 box sets of various sizes to give us locations including the vast open space of the rehearsal room, the luxury of Burton and Taylor’s apartment and the rather more modest Gielgud hotel room.

Both Thorne and Mendes seemingly missed the experimentation process of the rehearsal room during lockdown and that is where we see so many scenes of conflict between a director renowned for his mellifluous Hamlet who despairs at Burton’s ego and shouting style yet thanks to Taylor they find a compromise that seems to work.

Janie Dee (Follies, National Theatre) is especially good as a senior cast member unafraid to stand up to Burton and tell him how ashamed she is of his childish behaviour.

We laughed a lot at The Motive And The Cue, appreciated its reverence for Hamlet – not our favourite Shakespeare – but appreciated the idea that the part is so open to interpretation that there really is no definitive performance and that is why in acting circles it is 1 of the parts that is seen as a titanic challenge.

However, at times the new play feels a little bit like it should have the confidence in its own drama without having to quote so extensively from admittedly 1 of Shakespeare’s best-loved works.

  • Main picture via Facebook courtesy National Theatre. Pictures by Mark Douet Tickets
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