The Motive and the Cue: National Theatre Live

Matthew Collins
29th Mar 2024

The National Theatre has been broadcasting West End stage productions in cinemas since 2009. What started off as a relatively small exercise, only screening in 70 cinemas, has now grown closer to 700 screens across the globe. It is a significant part of the scope of the National Theatre’s business model that brings the theatre out of a single venue, and makes it accessible to those who either aren’t in London, or couldn’t afford a ticket. Previous productions of National Theatre Live include successful screenings of productions of Fleabag, Prima Facie, and The Seagull.

The Motive and the Cue stars Johnny Flynn as the young, outrageous, drunken movie star Richard Burton, who is taught a lesson by the elder, straight-laced theatre director John Gielgud (played by Mark Gatiss) as they rehearse for a radical production of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet. As is par for the course for this type of play (you know, the one which pits two iconic historical figures from different worlds against one another), you could say that Burton also has certain lessons of his own to teach Gielgud.

In the hands of a lesser writer, this kind of material could come off as flat and lifeless, and admittedly I found it did feel like that through much of the first act. It is only towards the end of the first half where the characters finally understand each other enough to take risks. A verbal battle of wits, physical altercations of brawn! Once the stakes and characters are set, the fun and games begin.

As the focus of the script, story, and poster is on the relationship between Burton and Gielgud, it seems apparent that a criminally under-discussed element of the play is the character of Elizabeth Taylor, played exceptionally by Tuppence Middleton. Her scenes playing against literally any other character elucidates an extraordinary, fiery energy that livens up every scene. One particularly engrossing scene follows the dreamy-eyed Taylor talking of how she wishes to play Portia in the Merchant of Venice, however Burton retorts that she’s too pretty for the role and would be miscast. Such scenes made me want to see an entire play based on her character. Take notes, National Theatre - I’m sure a Liz Taylor bio-play would be a smash-hit!

The play works to its strengths when it’s dealing with the passionate absurdity, and the absurd passions of the theatre industry. Although a passing knowledge of Burton, Gielgud, and Hamlet would help the average viewer understand from the get-go, it is not necessary to enjoy it as its own unique piece. As the lead characters go to war over interpretation and rehearsal etiquette, it always comes back to the central theme - the generational divide.

Director Sam Mendes stages the production with a slight amount of style, but nothing that takes the audience out of the narrative. Mendes is smart to allow the production time to sit with these characters, watch them squirm. It doesn’t need to be flashy and exciting. Similarly, the filming of the production is simple, enlisting a series of low-key pans, zooms, and close-ups to cut to once the master shot gets boring to look at.

All theatre fans will find something to enjoy with The Motive and the Cue, even if it is just sitting with a fascinating slice of theatre history.

In select Australian cinemas 5 April 2024.