Hamlet is the most endlessly beguiling play and we cannot get enough of it – the profound reflections on life and death, the relativity of the human condition and the ways in which individual action have consequences for collective experience. This play reveals new secrets all the time as different actors and productions find something new to say. Is Hamlet a tragic son cheated out of his birth right and consumed by grief for his beloved dead father, is he a madman picturing phantoms that drive him to paranoia and destruction or a misogynist spoiled brat who subverts the emotions of others to give his own needs priority? Any way that you see this play, there is a Hamlet out there for you, an estimated two hundred thousand known Hamlets in fact as Jack Thorne’s rather brilliant new play reveals. And if there is anything as fascinating as Hamlet himself, it is the process an actor undergoes in order to play him.
The Motive and the Cue, directed by Sam Mendes at the National Theatre, is set across a month in the 1960s when Richard Burton rehearsed his Hamlet with the eminent Sir John Gilegud directing him. A terse and difficult production that provides just enough of the behind-the-scenes theatrical scandal to entertain the audience with catty exchanges between the two great egos. But Thorne also finds intense vulnerability in these men manifesting in different ways at different points in the process that say much about the instability and insecurity of their profession as well as the ways in which Hamlet as a text forces the performer to engage with its big existential questions, getting under the skin of both men in ways that Thorne shows never leaves them. Who these men and actors are before they play Hamlet and after is one of the big themes of this piece.
But there are also plenty of important ideas in here about performance more broadly, integrated into the month-long rehearsal period taking place ahead of the show’s Broadway opening – a production that theatre history states went on to considerable and record-breaking success. But Thorne is most interested in the craft of acting and directing in this play, how do you take a piece of writing and turn it into something fresh and full-blooded and at what cost to those involved. There are lots of different things happening, mostly subtly, across The Motive and the Cue – what does it mean for a revered screen actor like Burton to not only take on one of the most challenging roles of all time, one that actors measure themselves against, but to relinquish the control of himself and of the prestige his fame has brought to be directed within the intensive theatre process? The debate rages beneath the surface of this play about the difference between screen and stage actors and what their training and methods bring to the process of character excavation and discovery. And while Thorne is reasonably even-handed about this with both Gielgud and Burton coming in for equal shares of criticism and celebration, the ask of Hamlet for different kinds of actor is a compelling debate within the play – and one, incidentally, that Sam Mendes is uniquely placed to address through the combination of theatre and cinema within his work.
The Motive and the Cue is also a play about theatre history, about the unique place this role holds in it and the many times and ways it has been played before. The character of Burton is deeply challenged by the idea of ‘his’ Hamlet and what that should consistently be across the rehearsal period and within the performance. But Thorne situates this in the context of all the other Hamlets that have gone before, and most particularly with Gielgud’s, and to a lesser extent Olivier’s, arguing that the latter’s on screen incarnation sets a kind of impossible template for others to follow. Thorne stages numerous clashes between the actor-director Gilegud and Burton who argue about interpretation, energy and Hamlet’s state of mind at any given moment, Gilegud floundering in the face of Burton’s muscularity within the role that removes doubt or reflection while Burton endlessly resents the feeling that he is being led towards a version of Gielgud’s own Hamlet, erupting at notes and suggested line readings that ultimately get neither very close to the production they wanted to create.
Thorne too is fascinated by the shifting tides for actors explored in this play, the joy of a new generation finding fresh meaning and purpose in Shakespeare’s text, but also the quiet tragedy of a baton being passed, of a former ‘great’ feeling (realistically or not) that his time and relevance is ending, that he is out of touch and out of favour with less declamatory, more earthy styles of acting so vitally alive in front of him. But it works the other way around too, and Thorne shows Burton struggling with the classicism he so desperately wants to master, to be revered and respected for the enduring creation of great art as Gielgud and Olivier are before him, but failing to reconcile his inexperience in this instance with the hope of producing that memorable, eternal performance that this play in particular demands that an actor aspire to.
Within this, Thorne is able to neatly explore the vulnerability in both men, Gielgud an elder statesman but ultimately alone, an isolated figure in another country miles from the comfort of an absent and much missed partner, feeling irrelevant and attacked by forces of modernity. Burton meanwhile grapples with memories of his parent in a play that sees father-son configurations throughout – in Hamlet and Hamlet Senior, Burton and his wayward miner father, and even in Gielgud and Burton. Trying to understand Shakespeare’s character leads both men to similar confrontation in their own lives, and one of Thorne’s most deft accomplishments is aligning extracts from Hamlet with the emerging drama of the rehearsal room and its environs.
The Motive and the Cue is structured around the days of the rehearsal with the audience dropping in at irregular intervals as preparations progress. Each chapter title has an associated quote from Hamlet relevant to the scene that is about to be played and Thorne doesn’t always select the most obvious ones. Sometimes scenes begin with large sections from Hamlet performed as though on stage in Burton’s eventual production but these merge back into the rehearsal room. At other times, Thorne follows three of his cast members into their real lives – Burton himself at home with his new wife Elizabeth Taylor and separately Gielgud who exists in a small break room and once in his own lodgings. There is something temporary about the state in which they all live, part of the actors’ life perhaps but it is also rootless, even possibly soulless, empty beyond the playing spaces where they are most fully alive. But these emotional depths and vulnerabilities shape and are brought into their conceptions of Hamlet.
Sam Mendes is the ideal director for a production like this with his rare ability to suggest the epic and the intimate concurrently. In The Motive and the Cue, Mendes applies this simply and subtly but to considerable effect, melding this illustrious history of Hamlet in performance that so troubled Burton with the very pressing and fractious concerns of this specific production and indeed of this one actor finding his way roughly to the part. Mendes’s staging choices capture this entirely, the insignificance of this Hamlet among the two hundred thousand but also its urgency and the personal deconstruction that it brings to these people in this moment. Mendes has long blended his experience of film and theatre, and here uses intersecting horizontal and vertical curtains to frame scenes in different ways to create intimacy and scale in the most cinematic sense – much as Robert Icke did with The Red Barn on the same stage – small and tight shots for external scenes, zooming out to wide lens for the capacious and intimidating emptiness of the rehearsal room that so oppresses Burton and Gielgud to a degree.
The style that Mendes employs here is like a behind-the-scenes, making-of theatre documentary, putting the audience in the position of the camera observing the creative process. The layers of a director and a director-character are really interesting, leading to plenty of theatre insights about control and purpose in the rehearsal room, the kind of support different actors need and how all the pieces have to fit together. This play reveals the hugely exposing process of creating a performance and the stakes for all involved if the piece fails, and Mendes gives space for all of this elliptical discussion while still providing momentum and meaning in both the Hamlet and Hamlet production sections.
The only possible false note here is the presence of Elizabeth Taylor as little more than a device for Burton to interact with outside his work, and while Thorne is accurately reflecting their life together at this time, giving her some very funny lines, she never quite feels like a whole person and never really like Elizabeth Taylor either. It creates a major female role in the drama, explores her parallel experience particularly with Gielgud as both found fame at a young age, but there is little development for her, nor is her presence entirely integrated within or modeled on the Hamlet sections in the way that other characters are. It also takes time away from the wider cast who despite a starry list including the painfully underused Janie Dee and Luke Norris – referencing perhaps the famous faces playing smaller roles in Burton’s Hamlet just for the honour of working with Gielgud – but we get too little of their struggle in the context of their lead actor and director’s destructive bickering.
Johnny Flynn gives a quite astounding performance as Burton, capturing the clamorous insistance of his vocal intonation and the very particular pace and timbre of his voice. But this is considerably more than an impression, ranging from certainty that the character exhibits in early rehearsals and a relaxed ease with his fame hoping that others will respect but accept his groundedness, through to the drunken rage and sulkiness that stems from Burton’s fear of the very vulnerability he requires to truly inhabit this role. Flynn makes his Burton awful and charismatic at the same time, erudite and instinctual as an actor but fighting demons – his past, his fame, his Hamlet – that consume him.
Mark Gatiss’s Gielgud is both more easily sympathetic but also more guarded, carrying around the weight of his eminence like a millstone. This Gielgud is adrift, struggling to find meaning and purpose, looking for it in the wrong places and only feeling more disconnected from the life he has lived and what it all meant as the acerbic relationship with Burton takes its tolls. Gatiss has always been particularly good at quiet despair, and it serves him well here with acres of feeling emanating from his pained loneliness as he grapples with new actors and new Hamlets in a rapidly changing profession.
The Motive and the Cue is a layered and engaging piece about the process of theatre, the things that evolve and the things that don’t, how performances are created and thrust into the world and why it feels so transient and eternal at the same time. Mendes and Thorne celebrate a play that test us all, audience, director and actor, a four hundred year old enigma that has been played two hundred thousand ways and will surely be played two hundred thousand more. Burton may or may not have found his Hamlet, but Thorne’s play shows why it remains an actor’s greatest and most rewarding challenge.
The Motive and the Cue is at the National Theatre until 15 July with tickets from £20. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog