Sam Mendes was in New York before the pandemic hit when he came across a book by little-known actor Richard L Sterne about his time in a legendary Broadway production of Hamlet. This 1964 play was directed by John Gielgud, one of the greats of English theater, and starred Richard Burton, then one half of the most famous couple on the planet. It turned out to be an explosive mix.
Sterne’s book was titled, rather prosaically, John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton Playing Hamlet: A Journal of Rehearsals, but it offered an extraordinary insight into the tensions and conflicts that went into making that play. And the source couldn’t have been closer to the action. Stern went to great lengths to get the material, at one point hiding under the stage to secretly record an argument between the director and the star about him.
A few months after finding the book, Mendes came across a work by another cast member. William Redfield’s Letters from an Actor – it was in the larger role of Guildenstern, where Sterne was simply the extra part of Gentleman – and the Oscar-winning director realized that the two short stories offered more than enough to make for a great comedy.
Next week The Motive and the Cue, written by Jack Thorne and starring Johnny Flynn as Burton, Mark Gatiss as Gielgud and Tuppence Middleton as Elizabeth Taylor, opens at the National Theatre. He took these two accounts as a starting point for recreating the making of the play, exploring an extraordinary clash of personalities, celebrities and classical versus modern theatre.
Mendes had sent the books to Thorne, whose work includes Harry Potter and Cursed Child for the theater and His Dark Materials, Kiri and Help on TV, and the writer loved them. For Mendes, the interest lay in directorial approaches and changes in theater ideas. For Thorne it was different and more exciting.
Burton “was right in the center of the fray. With Elizabeth Taylor he was part of the most famous couple in the world and capable of doing what he wants ”. Gielgud, on the other hand, was not.
He says: “It wasn’t until I realized, separated from those two books, where Gielgud was, that was the moment that stopped me. He wasn’t in a great place at the time. The previous decades had been defined by him and Laurence Olivier, and Olivier ran the National Theatre. Gielgud was outside.
Thorne says, “Being in this industry for 20 years, I’ve seen it and seen what it feels like. It was really interesting for me to write about it.
In addition to the two actors’ books, there was a wealth of documentary material for Thorne to browse, including Richard Burton’s diaries (although they don’t specifically deal with evidence, “do you have an idea where he was”), letters from Gielgud and all sorts beside.
“There was a lot, but it was delicious since I was in solitary confinement,” Thorne says. He would do phonetics with his son in the morning, then his wife would take over and “I would disappear into the 60s theater, which was a wonderful thing. Having those personalities whirling through my head during that bubble was glorious for me.
Contrary to what casual theater-goers might think, following the rehearsal process in a play like this is ripe for dramatization, Thorne says. “I love trial processes, but a lot of people don’t understand them. It’s not just, ‘Stand there, and stay there.’”
They are places where ideas are formed, but personalities collide, and this production of Hamlet has been intense, with tensions running high between star and director. “No one knows for sure, but I think things have gotten pretty bad,” she says. “I’ve been in rehearsal rooms as well, as has Sam. As well as Mark, as well as Johnny. We talked about it a lot, going through it.
Burton did not perform well and felt unprepared; and Gielgud was struggling to find a vision for their Hamlet – it was a role the latter had also played hundreds of times – and the new play’s title comes from a speech by Hamlet. They couldn’t figure out how to make it work, yet he would have had the longest run for Hamlet on Broadway.
“It’s a strange thing to do comedy,” Thorne says – what he describes as the process of watching an actor find their character and the insecurity that comes with it, and sometimes the desperation of blaming others when the process doesn’t work. “I’ve seen it happen loads of times. He’s only been this brutal a couple of times, but I’ve seen that brutality and Sam definitely has seen it. It’s difficult. You realize that eventually someone is going to be there on stage, and if he doesn’t know what he’s doing and feels exposed, that’s the worst of it.
Thorne says his main exposure to it has been on televisions “where people have behaved really badly. But sometimes for a very good reason. Sometimes you have to part with it. They are tumultuous places; people are scolded.
Taylor was another big personality to throw into the mix. Though she wasn’t in the production, the couple had just gotten married — they met on the set of the blockbuster Cleopatra in 1962 — and she was there during rehearsals. “I really wanted Taylor to be central because I think she is,” Thorne says.
His relationship with Burton was glamorous, and there were times where he “just enjoyed hitting the bear,” Thorne continues. “We watched this amazing interview and they are both just goading each other. Burton continues to get up and make drinks and smokes throughout, seemingly not interested in where the camera is. Taylor starts listing the things they say to each other that you would never see a modern celebrity do. She says, ‘Richard likes to talk about my double chin.’”
Burton and Gielgud’s Hamlet was filmed during its 100th Broadway performance and is available on YouTube. Thorne watched it several times before Mendes arranged a screening for the entire company.
“It was extraordinary because it changed my impression of the show. You don’t get into YouTube at all,” she says. “Whether it was a great performance, a good performance, or a poor performance, that’s up for debate and people have given different reviews of it. But there’s something very interesting about the way Burton has built it. There was something very beautiful about his performance. When we looked at it as a company, there was tremendous respect for it.
Thorne has made a career of carefully avoiding writing about real people and is “hungry to get back into fiction again because this is a difficult path… I found it very difficult and constantly worried about it; that I’m not respecting them or doing anything wrong or harming these great heroes and the people I love.
“Yet you can’t tell their story without telling their stark truth, because what’s the point?” he continues. “The act of love is to tell everything about them. I definitely fell in love with Burton, Taylor and Gielgud. I’m not sure I would want to be friends with any of them and I see their flaws. But I think they are amazing and I want to do them justice and at the same time I wanted to protect them.
The Motive and the Cue is at the National Theater from May 2 to July 15; nationaltheatre.org.uk