Photo: Mark Douet

The Motive and the Cue has already caused quite a stir this year – the previous run at the National Theatre sold out, earned rave reviews and picked up the Evening Standard award for best new play of 2023. Unsurprisingly, Jack Thorne’s show, directed by Sam Mendes, has now transferred to the West End, opening at the Noel Coward theatre this week. It returns with most of the original cast in tact, with Mark Gatiss, Johnny Flynn and Tuppence Middleton reprising their roles as John Gielgud, Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, respectively.

It’s a show about the art of theatre, focusing on the process of the rehearsal room, the relationship between actor and director. It’s a snapshot in time: the year is 1964 and John Gielgud is directing Richard Burton during the Broadway production of Hamlet. They both have a lot riding on this production – Gielgud, formerly an actor of renown whose star has substantially faded, has taken on this directing challenge as he acknowledges it’s the best offer of work he’s had in a long, long time; Burton, frustrated with his reputation of being a ‘good’ actor but not yet one of ‘the greats’, needs the vindication of succeeding in something more challenging than his recent film work.

The relationship is fractious which causes a fair amount of drama in the rehearsal room. Stakes are high: there is a lot of media interest in the production and both actor and directer need it to be a success. There are three key relationships at play here – between Gielgud and Burton; between Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, whom he has recently married; and between Gielgud and Taylor. It’s a play which also considers Gielgud’s relationship with his homosexuality – this is observed in a sensitive and nuanced manner with one particular exchange.

There’s a moment in act two where we get a glimpse into this part of his life – Gielgud has hired an escort for the evening, and while not much actually happens, the dialogue between the two is incredibly moving. The fear of being homosexual at a time when it was still illegal is palpable; the concern of what others – including his father – may think of his sexuality is clearly a cause of pain; we see his bitterness and jealousy towards the young, successful Burton. Amazingly there’s still room for some warmth and wit to be found during this tender moment of vulnerability – it’s a powerful, moving scene.

We absolutely adored The Motive and the Cue – not only is it a hugely compelling insight into the art of theatre but it’s also an achingly beautiful exploration of the human condition, which will resonate particularly with those of us who may have struggled with our queer identities at some stage in our lives. It’s a clever story, brilliantly observed, and with some fantastic acting and staging – watching it unfold on the very stage where Gielgud played his career-defining Hamlet makes it feel even more magical. We should note that the subject matter may not be the most mainstream – those with an interest in theatre making and the works of Shakespeare will get more out of this production than others – but it’s an absolutely superb play nonetheless.

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

More information can be found here.