The Motive and The Cue: Is This London’s Most Stunning Production?

Seeing the creative process is mesmerizing for me. Whether it was watching Get Back and seeing The Beatles create from seemingly thin air a new song or watching my mother with a blank piece of paper create a stunning watercolor, the mystery of creation is timeless. Here we watch the unfolding backstage drama as Sir John Gielgud directs Richard Burton in what would become a landmark production of Hamlet.

Both were peerless actors, and the clash of personalities is what makes the play so gripping. The roaring sturdy confidence of Richard Burton is counterbalanced by the reserved erudite confidence of John Gielgud. The obvious early stage acclaim of Gielgud is the attraction for him being hired in his later years to direct the brash but immensely successful Burton in the perennially challenging title role of Hamlet.

This production opened at the National Theatre in May 2023 and moved to the West End in December 2023 after decidedly solid reviews. The play opens with a table reading, and the cast is slowly introduced to the audience. We occasionally cut away to where Burton’s wife Elizabeth Taylor is ensconced in a nearby luxurious hotel. She points that other spouses are welcome to join the rehearsals, but Burton refuses. We realize it is due to his surprising lack of confidence on taking on such a monumental role. His fear of failure runs directly against his brash Welsh upbringing.

In context, it helps if the audience realizes that over the centuries for actors the role of Hamlet is ‘a hoop through which every eminent actor must, sooner or later, jump’ (Max Beerbohm) and is a ‘Mona Lisa of literature’ (TS Eliot). In recent years, lucky theatre goers could see the likes of Benedict Cumberbatch or Daniel Day Lewis assay the role. Kenneth Branagh has tackled the role three times.

The production of The Motive and The Cue is under the precise direction of the incredibly versatile Sam Mendes, who stunned us with his take on The Ferryman in London (and onscreen with American Beauty, Road to Perdition, Jarhead, Revolutionary Road, Away We Go, Skyfall, Spectre, 1917 and Empire of Light).

The set (by Es Devlin, who most recently handled U2’s expansive show at Sphere) is relatively simple yet effective, alternating between the vast rehearsal room and the Burton / Taylor hotel suite.

Mark Gatiss captures astonishingly well the effete and learned elder Gielgud. Gatiss captures the cadence and mannerisms of his character with aplomb. Johnny Flynn sweeps boldly through his role as Burton, who by the time of the play’s setting in 1964 had raised the stakes for all actors. Tuppence Middleton as his wife is luminous, bringing both frankness and beauty forward. Other roles are understandably much diminished, but Ryan Ellsworth as George Voskovec is another voice of reason as Burton’s antics tend to derail the production. Also bringing sincere perspective is Hume Cronyn (played by Allan Corduner) who speaks for the ensemble as only wanting to be involved in something great and lasting.

For the packed house, the play’s indeed the thing.

When the stage finally went dark after 2 hours and 40 minutes, I (like the rest of the audience) leapt to my feet for a lengthy ovation.






Brad Auerbach has been a journalist and editor covering the media, entertainment, travel and technology scene for many years. He has written for Forbes, Time Out London, SPIN, Village Voice, LA Weekly and early in his career won a New York State College Journalism Award.