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THE MOTIVE AND THE CUE: 4 Stars for A Well-Acted Character Drama

What theatre lover can resist Bard Wars, especially when directed by Sam Mendes?

Mark Gatiss and Johnny Flynn as Sir John Gielgud and Richard Burton

Photo credit: Mark Douet


Review By: Theatre Monthly Panel


Who can resist a clash of the Titans? Whether Churchill versus Stalin, Ali against Frazier, or Tom with Jerry, audiences are drawn to a fight in the center ring. For theatre goers, how could you do better than John Gielgud contra Richard Burton? And where could you find a more suitable director than Sam Mendes, who has not only conquered the stage but dazzled onscreen with Skyfall, Spectre, 1917 and so much more?


The Motive and the Cue at the National Theatre, written by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter & the Cursed Child) is more about setup than setting the theatre ablaze with dramatic conflict. It’s 1964 and Richard Burton (a charismatic Johnny Flynn) has decided to temporarily step down from the big screen to prove his bona fides on the boards. He shows up in New York with a chip on his shoulder, a supply of liquor, and one of the world’s most beautiful women on his arm. When Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) slinks onto the stage, you can almost hear the ghost of Andy Warhol uttering, “I must get her on a silkscreen”.


Mark Gatiss’s John Gielgud, who comes to direct Burton, is suitably regal, rapidly aging out of stardom, and worried he’ll come off more like Lear. His droll observations and parries cut straight to Burton’s insecurities and drive the younger man to twist open his bottles of scotch at a more furious pace, wondering, Am I really an actor, or just a moderately handsome matinee idol with distinctive nasal Welsh accent? Can I stand up to Gielgud’s Prince, or Olivier’s, or “the Great Profile” John Barrymore?


Gielgud’s high and mighty pronouncements on acting belie his fragility. He is bald, bulbous-nosed, and was outshone by studly Marlon Brando in Julius Caesar. Fifteen years after the Burton affair, he’ll lower himself to starring in a pornish Caligula, produced by Penthouse magazine founder Robert Guccione. (Last week, a new “ultimate cut” of that Caligula was released at Cannes, for a new generation to ogle with desire and horror). Gatiss portrays Gielgud deftly, and with one slight tilt of his head can communicate more than perfectly polished iambic pentameter could do in a sentence.


As the play begins we wonder, can Burton — a panther clothed in black — be directed? Or is he too big a talent and personality to accept advice? When Gielgud attempts to offer his own inflections on a phrase, Burton barks: “Don’t you dare give me a line reading!”


At the end of the play, when Burton finally takes the stage as Hamlet, he captivates. He goes from being a caged panther in a stark New York rehearsal room to being a captor who slays the Broadway audience. At this moment, one realises that even if Gielgud failed to direct Burton, Mendes directs a riveting Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton in a most unforgettable way.


The Motive and the Cue Review: 4 Stars

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