Photo: Mark Douet

On paper, The Motive and the Cue sounds like it has all the makings of something truly incredible. Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall) directs an impressive cast including Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn, in a new play by Jack Thorne (whose Harry Potter and the Cursed Child has been a runaway success on both the West End and Broadway). It’s a fierce and funny new drama concerning Sir John Gielgud’s 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet in which he cast Richard Burton in the lead role – at a time when Burton’s fame was going through the roof following his recent marriage to Elizabeth Taylor.

It’s an impressive production with a lot going for it. Perhaps unsurprisingly there’s a certain filmic quality to proceedings – the way that each new scene is created is far slicker than you would generally expect from a theatrical production and each set looks gorgeous. The costuming is great, too – full of intricate details that allude to the period.

The focus here, however, is the incredible story – a play-about-a-play, The Motive and the Cue tells the tale of the 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet, a stripped-back affair performed as though it were during the final dressed rehearsal, with nothing to distract from the celebrity casting of Richard Burton. Over the course of the play we examine his working relationship with his director, Sir John Gielgud, a former actor of renown whose star is fading. A number of themes are explored, whether that’s sexuality, masculinity, celebrity, ageing – we see these considered through an ongoing power struggle between the two.

Mark Gatiss delivers a hugely impressive performance as Gielgud; this is an incredibly nuanced exploration of his character. The fear of being gay at a time when it was still illegal is captured during a wonderfully powerful scene involving a sex worker; his worries about growing older, that is star is fading, and his jealousy of Burton all come through in a depiction that still includes moments of acerbic wit interspersed with a palpable vulnerability. Flynn impresses too as Burton, in an enigmatic performance, although it doesn’t quite scale the same heights. Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor brings an understated elegance to proceedings, although we never quite bought into the relationship between the newlyweds.

The Motive and the Cue is well worth making the trip to the Southbank for – it tells a gripping story and Mark Gatiss’ stellar performance is worth the admission price alone. We’d say those with an interest in Shakespeare and a general knowledge of the recent history of theatre will get the most out of this production, but there’s still plenty here for all to enjoy.

GAY TIMES gives The Motive and the Cue – 4/5

More information can be found here.