‘The Motive and the Cue’ review – Sam Mendes and Jack Thorne’s lulling, then lyrical, labour of love for theatre


It’s in equal parts ironic and gorgeously poetic that Sam Mendes’ production about a staging of Hamlet which struggles to find its feet… well… struggles to find its feet. Penned by acclaimed playwright Jack Thorne, The Motive and the Cue explores director John Gielgud and actor Richard Burton’s version of the tragedy, one which was marred by creative differences in the rehearsal room. Over two hours and 40 minutes, a sluggish first act is outshone by a triumphant second which celebrates the beauty of theatre in its entirety.

Though those who have seen Skyfall director Mendes’ stunning spectacle that is The Lehman Trilogy will know that even his theatrical work comes with a cinematic flair. Much like his previous National Theatre production – currently playing for a few more weeks on the West End after hugely successful London and Broadway runs – each act opens to rich piano melodies. On the Lyttelton stage, if the space is not used to its full capacity, then scenes are framed and boxed in like a still from a film (Es Devlin returns to create some perfectly posh, polished sets). If a scene feels too slow (and indeed, there are a few in the first half – including a conversation between Burton and wife Elizabeth Taylor at home), then there is at least some comfort in the fact that Mendes is capable of reenergising the production with every new scene.

That’s because each one starts with a character bursting out of the confines of the scene they’re in, before they are placed in the next. Granted, the line about entrances and exits belongs to a different Shakespeare play, but it sure looks like a nod to Jacques’ musings. The idea of a play within a play, about the story Hamlet – itself a play featuring another play – is marvellously meta, and further revelations from the characters on stage add to that in Act Two.

As Burton/Hamlet, Johnny Flynn succeeds in playing a deeply unlikeable egotist just as troubled as the Dane himself. In another self-referential moment, he stumbles into the rehearsal room drunk following a spat with Gielgud, and like the prince, we wonder just what exactly is going on inside the mind of the lead actor. Meanwhile Mark Gatiss, someone who is no stranger to playing eccentric characters (see his take on Mycroft Holmes in Sherlock and Professor Lazarus in Doctor Who), gives a comfortable performance as an emotionally repressed Gielgud who finds a release in the works of the Bard. His recital of a monologue to close out the first act is pained and poignant as he despairs over his version of the play being so distant from what’s happening in the rehearsal room. There’s something quite remarkable in Thorne’s writing to be able to create such enlightening and fascinating interpretations of Hamlet via Gielgud in the script, though while many other audience members clearly found humour in the playwright’s dialogue as well, I found many of the actors donning their American accents – not least Flynn – to be completely devoid of diction. It’s quite painful and frustrating to witness, given the play’s subject matter.

Nevertheless, this huge clash of characters – polar opposites in the calm and collected Gielgud and the anarchic Burton – finally flourishes and is fleshed out after the interval, when another individual provides the exposition to contextualise their struggles. When the first act has a slow pace and staggers its way through days of rehearsals (each scene is given a day and a line from Hamlet) with little sense of a wider message – beyond ‘a company struggle to put on a play’ – the second transforms The Motive and the Cue into a profound piece on the power of theatre. As Gielgud and Burton battle it out over ‘your Hamlet’ versus ‘my Hamlet’, there’s a small nugget for the audience to explore, if they so wish, about how navigating creative differences and finding common ground – and emotions – can speak to disagreements in other aspects of everyday life (politics being the easiest comparison, of course).

It’s these feelings – not nurtured by Gielgud to begin with, but instead allowed to run wild, messy and unrestrained – and how they are channelled which theatre is all about. It would be cheeky of me to suggest that Mendes gets a pass for the play’s flaws because theatrics, for all its drama, has its imperfections. There are the aforementioned issues with rhythm which take some time to iron out, but one can still appreciate the work undertaken by the director to build to an impressive climax and closing. It is not an exaggeration to say that the final image before the curtain falls is one of the most picturesque and beautiful scenes to end a play with that I have seen in a long time. The Motive and the Cue is a challenge, but to many people, that’s theatre.

The Motive and the Cue is now playing in the Lyttelton Theatre until 15 July 2023. Captioned performances are scheduled for 13 May, 12 June and 1 July.

Audio described performances will take place on 23 May and 1 July, with a British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted performance scheduled for 6 June.

Production Images: Mark Douet.

Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘The Motive and the Cue’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.

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