Review: The Motive and the Cue Tells the Delicious Story of the 1964 Broadway Hamlet Directed by John Gielgud and Starring Richard Burton

The Motive and the Cue is a theater-lover’s dream, a deliciously funny and candid theater story. Directed by Sam Mendes (Empire of Light, The Ferryman), it’s a new play about the rehearsal period for the 1964 Broadway production of Hamlet, with John Gielgud directing (or trying to direct) Richard Burton as Hamlet. The partnership was not a match made in heaven. 

Staged by National Theatre in London, the play premiered in April 2023 and the National Theatre filmed version was screened this weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center.  

The script by Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) won mostly rave reviews for the National Theatre staging in London. The premise is the play is in rehearsal for a minimalist, experimental new version of Hamlet, leading up to its premiere at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in the West End. Mark Gatiss plays Gielgud, aging out of his fabulous acting career, but considered noteworthy as a director. (It was said that big-name actors took small roles in Hamlet for the opportunity to work with Gielgud.) Burton, newly married to Elizabeth Taylor) is played by Johnny Flynn (One LifeRipley), who does a masterful job with Burton’s voice, accent and intonations. Gatiss' performance as Gielgud is brilliantly subtle and nuanced.

Elizabeth Taylor (played by Tuppence Middleton) is there too, confined to scenes with Burton and their guests in their New York apartment, apparently because the chaotic publicity about their marriage would cause disruptions in the rehearsal process. But Middleton shines in this role and dominates every scene she’s in. She also tries to make her knowledge of Burton helpful to Gielgud. 

Gielgud’s premise in preparing for Hamlet is that it will be a modernist, stripped-down version with minimal set and props. Actors will wear their preferred rehearsal clothes. No matter what costume he was in, Burton wore red socks—red for luck.

The film begins at the first cast meeting and table read and proceeds with rehearsals, focusing mostly on famous Hamlet speeches and scenes, such as the scene where Hamlet in his mother’s chamber (Sarah Woodward playing Eileen Herlie’s Gertrude) kills Polonius (played by Allan Corduner as Hume Cronyn). (It's only slightly confusing that we have contemporary actors playing 1964 actors playing Shakespearean characters.)

The most moving scenes are Gielgud and Burton rehearsing speeches such as “What a rogue and peasant slave am I,” his advice to the players (“Speak the speech, I pray you, as I have pronounced it to you), and most dramatically, “To be or not to be.” Throughout the play, Gielgud tries to get Burton to think about who Hamlet is. (Gatiss’ facial expressions are priceless as he listens to Burton declaim or shout his seemingly careless portrayal of Hamlet.

Flynn plays Burton as his own Hamlet—indecisive himself about how he will play the role of the indecisive Dane. But although Burton sometimes seems to ignore Gielgud and they spar repeatedly, he clearly admires and respects him. In a very moving scene late in the play, Gielgud and Burton reminisce about their own fathers, and Burton seems to break through with his own definition of Hamlet. 

Another poignant scene takes place in the director’s hotel room, where Gielgud entertains a male escort. Here Gielgud admits to the man he has paid for sex (but does not partake), that he has finally, late in life, found a man he loves and who loves him. Gielgud always feared that his homosexuality would be discovered. In 1964, it was still a crime in most of the US and the UK. Illinois was the first state to decriminalize sodomy in 1962, almost 10 years before any other US state.

The filmed play runs 180 minutes with a 20-mnute interval. Act 2 begins with a conversation between director Sam Mendes and playwright Jack Thorne.

The play’s odd title, which Gielgud discusses, is drawn from Hamlet’s “Oh, what a rogue and peasant slave am I” monologue, where he considers his hatred for his uncle (the motive), now his stepfather, who has killed his father, King Hamlet. The cue is Hamlet’s passion that may make him do the deed. 

The Motive and the Cue was screened this weekend at the Gene Siskel Film Center. If you missed it, look for it to be offered on National Theatre at Home. (I will definitely see it again.) 

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Nancy S Bishop

Nancy S. Bishop is publisher and Stages editor of Third Coast Review. She’s a member of the American Theatre Critics Association and a 2014 Fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center. You can read her personal writing on pop culture at nancybishopsjournal.com, and follow her on Twitter @nsbishop. She also writes about film, books, art, architecture and design.