In Jack Thorne's The Motive and the Cue, we are given not one but two plays. Set around the rehearsal period for the famed Broadway production of Hamlet, directed by Sir John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) and starring Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn), you go behind the scenes as they get ready for opening night, and you get snippets of Hamlet as they rehearse.
Gielgud's star is waning, and working with Burton, while an unlikely pairing, is a calculated move to boost his career. Burton is looking to add credibility to his starry career by working with Gielgud.
He starts the play by apologising to the rest of the cast for the crowd of fans outside the rehearsal room. He's recently married Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton), which has elevated his star status further.
The plan is for an unconventional production of Shakespeare's classic play (unconventional for the time). Gielgud wants a stripped-back set akin to the rehearsal room and for the actors to wear their rehearsal attire rather than costumes. (Yes, it's meta.)
Simple ideas and complications
Naturally, the 'relaxed' simplicity causes complications with the choices of rehearsal outfits becoming more considered and tailored.
And the rehearsal room setting doesn't offer many options for where Polonius can hide in the closet scene. There are a few laughs as Gielgud and the actors try and find a workaround.
Director Sam Mendes marks the passing of time for the rehearsal by projecting the number of days and a quote from Hamlet onto the stage curtain between scenes.
It heightens the tension as opening night looms, and there are clashes of styles, egos and needs in the rehearsal room, often with humourous effect.
Thorne's play cleverly syncs the key beats of Hamlet - seen through the rehearsal of particular speeches and dialogue - with the drama and atmosphere in the rehearsal room.
Will Hamlet the Broadway production end up a tragic flop as Hamlet the play end in tragic demise?
Gatiss beautifully delivers Gielgud's wry dialogue and specific turns of phrase. And Flynn has captured the intonation and pace of Burton's speech. Watching him as Burton, as he explores the character of Hamlet, feels like something special is unfolding in front of you. (You can see the real Burton performing Hamlet on YouTube.)
There is terrific chemistry between Flynn and Middleton as Burton and Taylor; Mendes has drawn out a naturalness in their relationship.
However, while she demonstrates prowess in nudging and steering behind the scenes when the couple is entertaining, Middleton doesn't quite have the presence and magnetism you'd expect with the Hollywood starlet.
The actual Gielgud/Burton production of Hamlet attracted several big names to take relatively small roles, and with the like of Janie Dee in the cast of The Motive and the Cue, it feels like Mendes directing has had the same effect.
It is another layer in this funny and interesting play that has, as my theatre friend and fellow blogger Maryam noted, a documentary feel. (You can read Maryam's review here.)
The Motive and the Cue is a gripping, fascinating, entertaining and spell-binding watch, and I'm giving it ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️.
The Motive and The Cue, National Theatre
Written by Jack Thorne
Directed by Sam Mendes
Starring: Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn
Running time: 2 hours and 4o minutes
Booking until 16 July; for more information and to book tickets, visit the National Theatre website.
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