Tuesday, May 28

The Motive and The Cue – Noël Coward Theatre

The Motive and the Cue takes a moment in theatrical history that might only appeal to academics or utter luvvies and transforms it into a gripping meditation on fame, ego, art and the power of the stage. The play is a multi-dimensional window onto a 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet, directed by Sir John Gielgud and starring Richard Burton. The personal dynamics between the two actors were at best complex and often toxic. Burton was a global star of stage and screen, at the peak of his career when he asked Gielgud to direct him. Gielgud’s star was on the wane, rendered unfashionable by 1960s modernism and experimental performance. 

Jack Thorne’s writing is sharp, witty and peppered with metaphors. What makes this show so thrilling to watch is that a tight and clever script is in the hands of a highly skilled cast. Mark Gatiss plays Gielgud with an emotional depth that is deeply affecting. He can be hilariously cutting or painfully fragile. Either way, this Gielgud is tortured, largely by himself, but also by Burton’s very existence. The Welsh star is the archetypal alpha male, swaggering, heavy drinking and loudly successful. He’s also married to Elizabeth Taylor, a celebrated beauty and screen legend. Gielgud by contrast, is middle class, restrained, gay and understandably closeted. Homosexuality was illegal in the UK until 1967.

Jonny Flynn captures Burton’s macho confidence, domineering presence and gruff sexuality with gripping intensity. The tension between these two theatrical titans, with their opposing representations of masculinity and approach to the craft are at the core of this drama. Most of the action takes place in the rehearsal room and is witnessed by the rest of the horrified cast. Gielgud uses subtle nuance to chide and guide Burton, who responds by being a childish bully bent on humiliation as spectacle. Shakespeare afficionados won’t come away disappointed as we’re given the best bits of Hamlet, delivered with passion and dexterity.

Tuppence Middleton plays Taylor and arguably has the best lines. We mostly see her ensconced in a luxury apartment, in silk negligees, drinking champagne. Es Devlin’s set design is a feast for the eyes, decadently surreal in parts, but also giving us cinematic moments where the stage feels like a movie screen. The styles of the era are reflected in perfect detail by Katrina Lindsay’s costume design, which is easily overlooked when being dazzled by the performances.

Jack Thorne’s writing prowess comes to the fore in a scene where Gielgud has an awkward encounter with a sex worker he has hired. The rent boy is sexually confident, but Gielgud is drowning in a sea of shame. Asked if he’s ever been caught by the police, Gielgud replies, ‘Once’. Gatiss delivers this word with all the grim weight that it carried for the actor. Gielgud was arrested in 1953 on the charge of “importuning for immoral purposes” in a toilet in Chelsea. It was a huge public scandal, and he maintained a silence on the topic for over 50 years. Gatiss somehow manages to convey all the pain of that episode in one syllable. It’s heart breaking and brilliant.

Directed by Sam Mendes, The Motive and The Cue is a testament to the power and importance of theatre. “You like the art,” says Gielgud to Burton. “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.”

The Motive and the Cue delivers a slick and intelligent night at the theatre from a team at the top of their game. On the stage where Gielgud once played Hamlet, the show resurrects a cast of showbiz ghosts, but this seance of the stars is contemporary theatre at its best. 

The Motive and The Cue is at The Noel Coward Theatre until 23rd March 2024, https://www.noelcowardtheatre.co.uk/whats-on/the-motive-and-the-cue

Reviewer: Stewart Who?

Reviewed: 22nd December 2023

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 5 out of 5.