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Lyn looks at The Motive and the Cue

Lyn looks at The Motive and the Cue

Lyn looks at The Motive and the Cue cover photo on Stagedoor
Theatre and its ghosts come to life in Jack Thorne’s new play at the National Theatre

Jack Thorne’s The Motive and the Cue at the Lyttelton is a layered love letter to theatre and its many ghosts. No play summons ghosts more than Hamlet, in which the spectre of a murdered king demands his son "remember me." Hamlet comes freighted with the fact that it is the world’s most performed play, and every actor cast as Hamlet is haunted by the performances of those who came before them. So too the audience. When early in the play Marcellus says, "What, has this thing appeared again tonight?" the audience may well feel the same about yet another revival of Hamlet.

The trick of Thorne’s play and Sam Mendes’ production is that it plays on those ghosts in many rewarding ways as it details the rehearsal period for Richard Burton’s 1964 Broadway Hamlet, which was directed by John Gielgud. Gielgud had made his mark on the role by the time he was in his twenties, but by the mid-sixties, his career was in the doldrums while that of his rival, Olivier, thrived. Burton is already 39, recently married to the most famous woman in the world, Elizabeth Taylor, and eager, after a string of movie roles and increasing celebrity status, to prove that he is still a classical actor.

But can the older and the younger man work together fruitfully to produce a great Hamlet, or do the shadows—of past glories, past performances, past traumas—loom too large? And what happens when two very different but massive egos are put in the same room together? The latter is very much reflected in the play’s structure, which puts Johnny Flynn’s Burton and Mark Gatiss’ Gielgud centre stage as they tussle over whose Hamlet this is going to be. Indeed, what theatre can and might be. It underlines the fact that we seldom recall the director of any revival but identify the production by its lead actor’s name: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet, David Tennant’s Hamlet, Andrew Scott’s Hamlet.

Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn in rehearsal for The Motive and the Cue. Photo by Mark Douet.

It may be Flynn—good at both Burton’s swagger and his insecurities—and Gatiss’ show (the latter is both waspish and ultimately moving as a man haunted by past professional success as he finds personal confidence). But there is good supporting work here from Tuppence Middleton as a Taylor, who is no celebrity cut-out but fully embodied with wit, intelligence, and empathy. This is a woman who knows her man, his strengths, and his weaknesses.

Burton and Taylor are, of course, ghosts now. But their celebrity lives on, and that is one of the layers in an evening that constantly reminds us that actors are theatre’s ghost-hunters, every night reanimating the dead (and all the dead words on the page) with insane bravery. We have all seen great performances that have an element of the uncanny about them. When we see a great theatre performance, we often talk about it being spine-tingling in the same way we might talk about a supernatural experience. But what makes a great performance?

That’s the question at the heart of The Motive and the Cue and the knot which Thorne worries at in many ways in a piece that offers us a glimpse of something few of us are ever privileged to see: the inside of the rehearsal room, beautifully realised by designer Es Devlin. As audiences, we only see the product. This play shows the process, warts and all, and it asks questions about whether a bad process can still deliver a great production and vice versa.

There is plenty to enjoy here, particularly in the snappier second half, which bowls along with so much light and shade, and there is a moment when the play does something very clever. It shows us the very source that every actor needs to fuel a great performance—that indefinable moment when intellect and reason (the motive) meet what Gielgud describes as "the inner switch which ignites the heart" (the cue). In that moment, the play blazes and ghosts walk.

Cover image of director Sam Mendes and the cast of The Motive and the Cue in rehearsal. Photo by Mark Douet.

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Lyn Gardner

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