Captured live at London’s Lyttleton Theatre in 2023, Jack Thorne’s play depicts a watershed in British theatre.

It’s 1964 and John Gielgud (played by Mark Gatiss), one of the giants of the pre-war Shakespearian stage, is directing a Broadway-bound production of Hamlet with Richard Burton (Johnny Flynn) in the title role.

“The classicist who wants to be modern, meeting the modernist who wants to be classical,” quips movie star Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton), to whom Burton is newly and world-famously married. And that, in many ways, is the play summarised.

Mark Gatiss as John Gielgud and Johnny Flynn as Richard Burton in The Motive and the Cue. Photo © Mark Douet

Thorn counts down the days to opening night in a play that flits from rehearsal room to Burton’s apartment to that now-famous production of Hamlet.

For anyone interested in British stage history, this is catnip, but even if that interest is only glancing, the shifting battle of egos between Gielgud (who, at 60, is all-too-aware that his star has faded) and Burton, whose hell-raising reputation is tinged with self-loathing and a growing disdain for acting, is compelling.

Directed by Sam Mendes (whose The Lehman Trilogy recently played in Sydney), Mark Gatiss is superb as Gielgud. He has the great actor’s airy phrasing and old-school musicality down pat. Johnny Flynn (who co-starred in the recent One Life opposite Anthony Hopkins) is convincing as the incendiary, varying shades-of-drunk Burton, the working-class boy who idolised Gielgud as a teenager yet feels compelled to do battle with everything he represents. He also does a fine job capturing Burton’s smoky, Welsh-tinged baritone and his hard-edged attack on Shakespeare’s verse.

A work of theatre about the theatre – its travails, agonies, ghosts and pleasures – that works exceptionally well on screen.

The Motive and the Cue plays in selected cinemas from 6 April.

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