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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

The Motive and the Cue, at the Noel Coward Theatre

There is something quite magical about sitting in the Noël Coward Theatre, where John Gielgud played Hamlet in 1934 for 155 performances and seeing Mark Gatiss play John Gielgud directing Richard Burton in Hamlet in 1964.

It’s not just that the transfer of the National Theatre’s magnificent The Motive and the Cue to this particular West End theatre means that the audience and the cast are part of their own piece of theatrical history.

It’s more that the play itself opens up just those vistas of life and art, celebrating and exploring the way that theatre is like a box of mirrors, revealing and illuminating past and present, the personal and the public.

In the centre of Jack Thorne’s quite wonderful play about the 1964 production of Hamlet when John Gielgud directed Richard Burton, there’s a scene where the two men, embodied by Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn are alone on stage, discussing Hamlet’s plan to set a “mousetrap” by staging a play to prove the guilt of his uncle.

“Such a commanding advertisement for theatre, don’t you think?” Gielgud says. “Theatre as a trap. As an empathy hole into which huge bears can fall. I always find it very moving.”

It’s a marvellous scene, played with understanding and skill by the two actors. It also sums up the effect of The Motive and the Cue itself. It is a kind of mousetrap, a box within a box, which uses the art of theatre, and the story of a famous but troubled Broadway production that set box office records, to examine the art of acting and the nature of theatrical truth-telling.

Yet its real power lies in the way it takes the rehearsals of a classic play to hold the mirror up to nature and reveal wider insights into human nature and our desperate longing for affection, and applause. It’s a play full of compassion, funny, witty and utterly compelling.

Sam Mendes’s smooth and sophisticated direction takes a cinematic approach, with surtitles taking us through the process of rehearsal from Day One to First Night, each with an appropriate quotation from Hamlet.

An aperture opens at different widths on Es Devlin’s fluid set, revealing a monochrome rehearsal room where the company gather in search of theatrical greatness, or the vivid red-walled hotel suite where Burton holds court, newly married to Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton), her glamour as bright as the room.

Everything looks beautiful, with Jon Clark’s lighting carefully marking the passage of the days through a phalanx of long, grey windows, covered in blinds. But it also plays with the artifice and reality that is the subject of the piece itself; the entire structure is like a series of reveals, as tempers flare, personalities clash, and the nature of the play and of Burton’s view of it is finally uncovered.

The events recounted are broadly true, but Thorne has carefully shaped them into an epic confrontation between “a classicist who wants to be modern and a modernist who wants to be classical”, as Taylor explains to Gielgud when they first meet, moving the focus from crowd scenes to monologues, from his text to Shakespeare’s, with great skill.

As Burton, Flynn has the almost impossible task of finding the unique quality of a man whose voice and looks made him the most famous actor in the world at the time. He catches the rasping bite and the insecurity of this miner’s son, already haunted by demons and drink, though he sometimes misses the melody that made Burton’s speech so distinctive. The scenes where he tries on different versions of Hamlet, running the famous words in different ways, are feats of actorly technique, but Flynn mines the emotion in the words and is utterly convincing in his moments of anger, fear and despair.

Tuppence Middleton makes Taylor a warm and wise presence, uncomfortable at being side-lined, but happy to support her man. Their scenes together have a kind of light, a sense of the passion that brought crowds to stand outside the theatre just to gaze at their glory, but also an affection that is supremely moving.

She brings enormous vitality to these scenes, suggesting the wisdom borne of long experience that made her such a fascinating figure as well as her “tremendous bosom” as Gielgud calls it. And she looks totally stunning.

This Gielgud is – like the real man – often very funny. But it is the triumph of both play and performance that he is so much more than that. He becomes a symbol of human frailty and of resilience. In his belief in art, he becomes a beacon for life.

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