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Review: The Motive and The Cue (Noël Coward Theatre)

Updated: 6 days ago

Review by Sam Waite




“Can you imagine doing your best work at 25 years old?” Sir John Gielgud, theatrical titan, asks Elizabeth Taylor, screen siren. Her smirking reply: “Can you imagine doing it at 12?” This is one of many peaks behind the carefully-hung curtain of stardom in Jack Thorne’s The Motive and The Cue, a National Theatre hit now running in the West End’s Noël Coward Theatre, documenting the brief but tumultuous rehearsal period before a Broadway run of Hamlet.


Starring in this real-life production was Taylor's 5th husband, actor Richard Burton, directed by Sir John in a minimalist take free of traditional sets or costuming – instead, the outfits will be those worn for rehearsals, and a bare stage will leave Gielgud's cast to wow only with their takes on these well-worn roles. A problem is immediately clear, in that Burton seems resistant to Gielgud’s notes, making his own (questionable, more often than not) choices in an effort to be true to the text while putting him stamp on the role.


Thorne, a prolific writer whose recent London showings include Harry Potter, The Old Vic’s Christmas Carol, and the Donmar’s When Winston Went to War with the Wireless, demonstrates why he is in such high demand. Where his comedy is brash and boisterous, his storytelling and characterisations allow for greater nuance and delicate exploration. When Burton says he is doing the play, rather than more lucrative film offers, he claims it is for the artistry and challenge, only to have a cast member counter that it is a matter of ego – in Thorne’s hands, Burton has enough dimension that the audience can conclude for themselves whether one, the other, neither, or even both, has come to the correct conclusion.


A brilliantly sloppy Johnny Flynn plays Burton with a swaggering confidence that belies the Hollywood icon’s greatest role, an actor confident in his own ability to impress in theatre history's most-produced play. Across the rehearsal space is Gielgud, a brilliant Mark Gatiss, who is struggling just as much to secure with and in command of his production, and in particular his star. Both are doing astonishing work, bringing to light real questions about legacy and art, but they and the play are at their strongest when the two men are paired together – the energy of frustration mingled with respect, of a desire to please but not to cede control, is almost palpable when the two are left alone to rehearse Prince Hamlet’s famous soliloquy.


Also marvellous, in what seems an underused role in act one but is gradually revealed to be just present enough for the proper impact, is Tuppence Middleton in the daunting part of Elizabeth Taylor. Middleton Carrie's herself with the combination of sensuality and withering, cutting wit that is so central to the public image of Taylor, without ever leaning into a crude imitation of the actress. Indeed, the whole ensemble of actors is terrific, inhabiting their parts fully even through long stretches of observing form upstage, and imbuing their Shakesperean scenes with the right balance of what they know to be the proper reading, and what approach their characters would take.


As at the National, The Motive and The Cue is directed by Sir Sam Mendes, notable for his acclaimed work on stage (the early-90’s Cabaret, the Bernadette Peters run of Gypsy) and screen (Oscar-winning American Beauty, Bond movies Skyfall and Spectre) joining Thorne in proving his pedigree with stellar work. An intelligent director, Mendes doesn't allow the play to lean too far into one-sidedness – yes, Burton’s drinking and unwillingness to comply with Gielgud’s vision is more damaging to the rehearsals than Gielgud's hesitation to fully take control from him, but Mendes allows us to make up our own mind about whether either or both truly earns our sympathy. The influence of his film work is also apparent, and I found myself frequently noting that the production would so easily translate to cinema, perhaps with some light re-working from Thorne and Mendes themselves.


Set design from Ed Devlin plays with size beautifully, contrasting the grandeur and scale of Broadway with the familiarity of film and of home by having Richard and Elizabeth’s suite contained in the centre of the stage, while the sharply-lit rehearsal space takes up the entirety of the Coward stage. This overwhelming openness is essential in key scenes where only one or two of the actors is left on the stage, their ability to stretch their magnetic presences across its expanse demonstrating just how powerful their work is. Likewise, John Clark’s lighting – dim and intimate at the quite, glaringly bright in the rehearsal room – helps to deepen this comparison between familiar comforts and feeling on display


With the title being taken from a Hamlet quote, while also referring to the theatrical terms, the piece has just the right amount of Shakespeare to deepen our understanding of this fraught development process and the difficulty the characters find in reinventing the roles. It's a further testament to both Thorne’s script and Mendes’ shepherding of his cast that lengthy sections of Shakesperean text don't feel like allowing someone else's work to play out, but like natural depictions of the everyday working lives of these characters.


A play so successful in its exploration of artists that cliches like “a love letter to the theatre” feel both wholly appropriate and woefully inadequate, The Motive and The Cue is the kind of historical drama that will live on and be loved for as long as the fascination with the stars and stages of old can stretch. Bolstered by immaculate work from its leads and a sharp, insightful script, it will likely be a late entry to many end of the year lists for those of us who missed it at the National. Taylor and Burton may have been the Hollywood icons, but it's Liz, Dick, and John who are setting the West End ablaze.


The Motive and The Cue plays at the Noël Coward Theatre until March 23rd 2024



Photos by Mark Douet

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