As a play about theatre, The Motive and the Cue drills down hard on this niche at the National Theatre
“Together we share the responsibility of what theatre can be”
Much as films about the world of film-making have to tread carefully to not seem too self-satisfied about their assumed importance, so too do plays about theatre. For myself, I’d argue that Jack Thorne’s The Motive and the Cue, now playing at the National Theatre, doesn’t quite find that balance, comfortably revelling in its niche. But given the response of the audience around me, it would seem that many are happy to wallow there with them for the duration.
Thorne’s play covers the true story of John Gielgud directing Richard Burton as Hamlet on Broadway in 1964, following the 25 days of their rehearsal period to explore how theatre can be made, particularly when there’s a fraught relationship between director and star. At 60, Gielgud fears he’s staring the beginning of the twilight of his career, at 39 Burton is at the height of his film stardom and newly married to Liz Taylor, now wanting to prove himself onstage.
And so what we get is a whole lotta Hamlet in rehearsal, actors playing actors talking about acting…you definitely have to buy into the conceit. If you do, then there’s much to take pleasure in – Mark Gatiss’ tightly buttoned demeanour terrified both of being considered a dinosaur and of his homosexuality being outed, Johnny Flynn’s looser energy a real contrast even as he evokes Burton’s burgeoning insecurities that the role is too big for him.
But this not beng an era that particularly interests me, this really isn’t the play to change your mind. As egos clash, questions about the nature and meaning of theatre feel painfully blunt in their insertion and way too close to sentimentality in their resolution. Quality talent in the company occasionally perks the interest (Janie Dee, Luke Norris) and Es Devlin delivers another of her iconic designs, but the surfeit of self-regarding in-jokes turned me right off.