Review: The Motive and the Cue

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“What a piece of work is a man – In form and moving how express and admirable! In action how like an Angel – in apprehension how like a god! . . . And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?”

So speaks Richard Burton, that mellifluous baritone Welsh actor, who played Hamlet in John Gielgud’s legendary 1964 production of that Shakespeare mainstay. Dubbed ‘the natural successor to [Laurence] Olivier’ by critic Kenneth Tynan, Burton was closely associated in the public consciousness with his second wife, the actress Elizabeth Taylor, whose turbulent relationship was rarely out of the news. And it is this world of effervescent excess, emotional conflict and glorious romance, all centred around that memorable 1964 production of Hamlet, that the National Theatre’s The Motive and the Cue brings so vividly to life.

The auditorium of the Noël Coward gleams with stirring excerpts from the original Shakespeare, blended effortlessly with Jack Thorne’s ingenious playscript

The Motive and the Cue is National Theatre Productions’ latest play to grace the West End, hosted in the sublime surrounds of the Noël Coward Theatre. Directed by Sam Mendes – famed for Skyfall, Spectre and 1917, among other illustrious credits – the production is handled with a careful eye for detail. Scene changes unspool with meticulous fluidity, the technological marvels at work orchestrated with utter seamlessness. We rove from plush drawing room decked with drinks and fine décor, to an intimate bedroom scene, and then on to a script reading around a table with the whole cast on stage at once. Es Devlin’s expert set design combines with Jon Clark’s exquisite lighting to create beautiful scenery that shimmers with the poetry of this play. The auditorium of the Noël Coward gleams with stirring excerpts from the original Shakespeare, blended effortlessly with Jack Thorne’s ingenious playscript. The two voices – Elizabethan poetry alongside prose composed this very year – hang together with remarkable grace and harmony.

The acting quality is clear. Johnny Flynn provides an authoritative but sensitive rendition of Richard Burton, while Tuppence Middleton gives a sultry, sophisticated Elizabeth Taylor. The supporting cast enthuse the scenes with real dynamism and an ebullient sense of playful fun, camaraderie and lavish entertainment.

The cast of The Motive and the Cue in the West End
Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor in The Motive and the Cue in the West End

The show is undoubtedly enhanced by Mark Gatiss as Sir John Gielgud. As the wise old director advising the young actor (Burton), Gatiss holds himself with a statesmanlike dignity. Wise, funny, commanding and then delicate, each evolution of this complex character’s trajectory with the play’s advance is deftly conducted. The play also touches, in one particularly moving scene, on Gielgud’s homosexuality, highlighting the difficulties of being a gay man, both in Britain and in the United States, during the 1960s.

The Motive and the Cue achieves what few productions can: it is wonderfully technically ambitious, while maintaining a depth of genuine feeling

At the close of this production, Flynn’s Burton drops his heavy cloak, the relief of its unravelling from his weary shoulders clearly present as his face clears of all concern and consternation. He glides, like a spectral wight, into the shadowed dark – where he picks up a white skull. Then he cradles the skull, looking hauntingly into its hollow eyes, and finally, he holds it aloft, the spotlight beam shining onto him as the skull rises, illuminating our Hamlet in profile. It is an utterly sublime moment. And then the curtain falls.

The Motive and the Cue achieves what few productions can: it is wonderfully technically ambitious, while maintaining a depth of genuine feeling. Mesmeric, multifaceted and deeply emotionally moving, the production reverberates with rich emotive nuance, combined with exceptional technical deliverance. This production shimmers with enthusiasm and ingenious set design, the vividness of the stagecraft crystallising each scene in our minds with as much force as the evocative lines spoken.

The cast of The Motive and the Cue in the West End

The Motive and the Cue will be in performance at the Noël Coward Theatre until the 23rd of March 2024, in collaboration with National Theatre Productions. Tickets are available here.

Images: Holly Nichols via National Theatre Productions.

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