The Motive and The Cue @ Noel Coward Theatre, London

Putting on a play within a play, but also discussing a play and considering the craft of acting, Jack Thorne’s writing both entertains and makes you listen really hard. An old school play focused on words and performance, with super stagey names of Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn), Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) and Sir John Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) added into the mix. And Sam Mendes directs!

With a clever use of dramatic coloured lighting and framed curtains, the play within a play is reinforced. (Es Devlin’s stylish set is a delight). Sir John Gielgud is directing Richard Burton in Hamlet — and we see a clash of ages, acting styles, interpretations, backgrounds and personalities in epic proportions. A great actor, Sir John now has to take what he can — which in this case is uncomfortable directing. Richard Burton battles to get his interpretation of Hamlet to birth, wrestling with being directed and in following other great names in creating the role.

Alongside is Taylor-Burton’s passionate relationship, Sir John’s hidden personal life as a gay man and Burton’s storytelling, covering up a painful childhood. With ironic sexism, Flynn and Gatiss are praised for performances, whilst Middleton is lionised for smouldering in quotes outside the theatre! In fact Tuppence Middleton pulls off an impossible task (comparable to instructing a volatile, brilliant actor). She shines with the glamourous brilliance of Taylor but also stands on the sidelines offering exposition comment. Rather than being a small secondary character, she still shines and we see something of her own battles between stage and screen acting, who she could be and what she could do.

Johnny Flynn delivers Burton’s unique accent and inflexions, with a tremendous Hamlet ending. We also experience his struggles, vulnerability, pain and obnoxiousness.

Mark Gatiss is wonderful as Sir John, a beautiful, brilliant actor, neglected and overlooked by this current age (1964), and dealing with his own frailty and mortality. It’s also about how knowledge and stagecraft is passed on — is Sir John guiding or instructing when he shares his wisdom about interpreting the role? Should he be listened to reverently or ignored? Can a stagey great be ignored? Should he be?

It does make you listen hard, with a framing of Hamlet quotes as rehearsals take place. Beware where you’re listening from — the Balcony of the Noel Coward Theatre was boiling hot, airless and required judicious leaning forward to see. Thankfully most of the play is played centre stage or to the back; apart from some alarming heads being cut off in your view when actors stand on furniture to declaim, you can see everything that matters. Just go dressed for summer if you’re in the Balcony!

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Cultures: Arts Reviews and Views by Susan Tailby

By Susan Tailby. Appreciator of arts and culture; things I've seen and enjoyed and you might too! Reviews all my own opinion....Theatre, Movies, Dance & Art!