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Heavyweight theatre clash makes for entertaining and riveting watch (review)

Heavyweight theatre clash makes for entertaining and riveting watch (review)

Politics and art collide in this new play about theatre, celebrity and showbiz…

By Suman Bhuchar

THIS is about two artistic titans slugging it out on the best way to play ‘Hamlet‘.

Director Sam Mendes asked writer Jack Thorne (‘Harry Potter and The Cursed Child’) to write a play about one of the greatest theatre stories, when Richard Burton played Hamlet on Broadway, directed by John Gielgud.

The Motive and the Cue‘ is all about the process of rehearsal, the rivalry and admiration of the two men for each other.

There is a combativeness over theatrical styles and they indulge in industry type bitchiness about other actors in the business, such at ‘Larry’ and ‘Marlon’ (Laurence Olivier and Marlon Brando).

Sir John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) and Richard Burton (Johnny Flyn)

Mark Gatiss is superb and measured as John Gielgud, while Johnny Flynn is a restless and pugnacious ‘Dick’, as he is often referred to in the play.

It is a riveting watch and you don’t have to be part of the arts sector to be fascinated by this story.

‘Hamlet’ is one of the plays which has had nearly two thousand productions and it is many actor’s dream to play the pivotal role.

Gielgud, considered to be a fine classical actor and interpreter of Shakespeare, had played the part over 500 times and his performances were seen to be the definitive ones.

However, theatre was undergoing transition between classical and modern ideas of performance and a lot of that tussle comes across in the interaction between the two men.  

Gielgud (Gatiss) and Jessica (Aysha Kala)

Based on books by two actors who featured in the original production Richard L Sterne and William Redfield, ‘The Motive and the Cue‘ begins in a rehearsal room in 1964 where the cast meet on Day 1 and then the structure counts down on rehearsal days up to the opening intercut.

In between arguing about the “process” the play enacts a few scenes of Hamlet and we also see life outside the rehearsal room.

Richard has just got married to Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) and she is locked up in a hotel room, bored, so he brings his mates to hang out and party. The design by Es Devlin and lighting by Jon Clark conveys the period look from the drab cream grey of rehearsal space to the opulent glamour of the New York hotel.

There are many moving scenes between Gielgud and his assistant, Jessica (played by Ayesha Kala); his rent boy scene and when Liz invites him to breakfast to talk about Richard.

Burton (Flyn) and Elizabeth (Liz) Taylor (Tuppence Middleton)

Another stirring moment is when Liz and Gielgud discuss their best work and she confesses her’s was when she did ‘National Velvet‘ aged 12 and performs her Juliet on an empty stage knowing full well she would never get to play it in front of an audience.

Middleton is poignant – as Juliet is playing to an empty stage.

The Richard Burton ‘Hamlet‘ did end up being the most successful one on Broadway being the longest run for that play notching up 137 performances.

This is a brilliant show which may be sold out but check day tickets on the National Theatre Website. Hopefully it will get a transfer to the West End.
Acv review: ***** (out of five)

A ll pictures: ©Mark Doeut and National Theatre

The Motive and The Cue by Jack Thorne, (May 2) until July 15, The National Theatre, London SE1 9PX

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Written by Asian Culture Vulture