‘Richard Burton Might Down a Bottle of Scotch During a Play’: Inside Gielgud’s Cursed Hamlet

In rehearsal: Richard Burton takes over direction from John Gielgud - Bettmann

In rehearsal: Richard Burton takes over direction from John Gielgud – Bettmann

Does Jack Thorne have the true measure of “Burton/Gielgud” Hamlet, which saw John Gielgud directing Richard Burton on Broadway in 1964 in the most demanding play in the Shakespearean canon, with a predominantly American cast?

Thorne, a principal screenwriter and one of our most commercially successful playwrights thanks to Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, shared some thoughts ahead of his telling the story at the National.

Directed by Sam Mendes, The Motive and the Cue stars Mark Gatiss as Gielgud, with Johnny Flynn and Tuppence Middleton as Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. The couple could not have been more feted after starring together in Cleopatra the year before and were married just before the production opened in New York on April 9, 1964.

Burton had already played Hamlet (in 1953) as, ultimately, Gielgud, many times. They wanted to do something relatively experimental: a production of modern clothes with a “final rehearsal” aesthetic.

Whatever artistic honeymoon period there was between them, though, it wasn’t cloudless. “The easy thing to do would have been [for Gielgud] to allow Burton to dominate,” observes Thorne. “But Hamlet was important to Gielgud—and he didn’t want to let him go. Disaster quickly loomed.

Curtain Call: Richard Burton takes a bow at final performance of Hamlet in Toronto - Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star

Curtain Call: Richard Burton takes a bow at final performance of Hamlet in Toronto – Rick Eglinton/Toronto Star

Taking us into the rehearsal process, Thorne seems intent on defining the project as a clash of egos and cultures: traditionally regal Gielgud (who was turning 60) versus Burton, at 38 the young and modern usurper.

“The Motive and the Cue” is a self-accusatory monologue by Hamlet, which contrasts the inertia of the Prince with the dynamism of the Player King (“What would he do,/ If he had the motive and cue for the passion I have?”). The title thus refers to an actor’s need for motivation for the head and spurs for the heart, steers that Gielgud has been accused of failing to provide.

Thorne is indebted to Letters from an Actor (1966) by William Redfield (1927-1976), which played Guildenstern and gave an often damning version of events. To cite a sour example: “Burton’s fundamental quality as an actor is so strong…that it’s hard to imagine how a director could dilute the impression. But this is obviously Gielgud’s intention. The script was also informed by a diary kept by one of the ensemble’s courtiers, Richard L Sterne, first published in 1967, which meticulously detailed the rehearsals with the aid of a tape recorder daringly hidden in a briefcase.

I tracked down Sterne, at 81 one of the few remaining cast members to tell the story. Far from thinking of Hamlet as a debacle, though, he proclaims it “the thrill of a lifetime.” He recalls the total hysteria that swept downtown Manhattan during the first night in New York, which was attended by a roll call of illustrious names including Bob Fosse, Lillian Gish, Dudley Moore, Paul Newman and Neil Simon.

'The Thrill of a Lifetime': Richard L Sterne rehearsing with Gielgud

‘The Thrill of a Lifetime’: Richard L Sterne rehearsing with Gielgud

“There was a great terror of walking out of the theater after the show,” she says. “Thousands filled the block of West 46th Street from Broadway to Eighth Avenue, hoping to catch a glimpse of Burton and Taylor.” Police guarded the Lunt-Fontanne and the cast had to wait for ‘Dickenliz’ to leave ‘to avoid being trampled on’.

This craze accompanied Burton and company as they landed in Toronto in January for rehearsals. Gielgud railed in a letter about “horrible mobs of idiots” besieging the King Edward Sheraton hotel where the couple was staying, requiring a bodyguard. When the couple returned from their secret wedding in Montreal in mid-March, Burton was in high spirits, introducing his bride to the audience with a line from the comedy — “I say we’ll have no more weddings” — and garnering a huge round of applause. .

But Boston, where the company arrived for a second test drive, was even busier. Sterne compares it to the worst of Beatlemania: “While the plane was on the runway, thousands of people tore down the fences and surrounded us. We could not do without it for centuries. The Burtons were subsequently mobbed by hundreds of fans in the lobby of the Sheraton Plaza, with Taylor so badly mauled that he had bruises on her back and arms.

Like Beatlemania: Burton with Elizabeth Taylor in Toronto in Toronto 1964 - Barry Philp/Toronto Star

Like Beatlemania: Burton with Elizabeth Taylor in Toronto in Toronto 1964 – Barry Philp/Toronto Star

In his 1991 memoir, Hume Cronyn (who won a Tony for playing Polonius) once described being with the couple as they were surrounded by a limousine in New York. He recalls: “A sweet, smiling Elizabeth, waving like royalty as she muttered silently, ‘F— you – and you – and you, dear. This was not Elizabeth’s usual style with her audience. But in this case she just had it. With the cast, however, Taylor was gracious: Liverpool-born costume designer Jane Greenwood, 88, recalls the star attending rehearsals and serving canapés.

Sterne, who was present at all rehearsals, witnessed the toll this commotion took on Burton. “Richard was very friendly, down to earth with everyone including the door man on stage. But one minute he’d be exuberant and happy, the next he’d be depressed about what was going on.

Drinking was a crutch. Alcohol was on hand, not least because the production was sponsored by J&B Scotch. “They gave us endless bottles,” Sterne marvels. “Richard could shoot down a whole one during a performance.” But if his portrayal of him could be uneven, that was also how he conceived of the role. As Sterne explains: “He was constantly changing movements and readings because he felt that this was part of the concept of ‘rehearsal'”.

Therein lies the crux of the friction that Thorne seems to have run into. “Burton banked on sense first and the poem could be hanged,” says Jonathan Croall, Gielgud’s biographer.

Alas poor Yorick: Richard Burton in Hamlet - Mondadori Portfolio

Alas poor Yorick: Richard Burton in Hamlet – Mondadori Portfolio

This puts Burton nominally in the same camp as some of the American malcontents, chief among them Redfield, whom Greenwood recalls as a troublemaker: “He was a bastard! He wanted everything his way. I think he wanted to play Hamlet.

Sterne gives me a small but eloquent example of the transatlantic rift: “Fortinbras – Michael Ebert – got on stage and started doing a mime of looking away and getting angry. Gielgud said ‘Michael, what are you doing when you arrive?’ Michael said: ‘Well, Sir John, I’m trying to establish that I don’t like Claudio. He said, ‘But my dear boy, there is no time for all this. Just say the words and move on!’ “

“Gielgud wasn’t very driven,” admits Croall, “and he infuriated some of the cast by providing readings of lines—such as declining a particular line—that went against the trends of American theater at the time.”

However, in consulting Sterne, it is clear that Gielgud was also teeming with ideas about Hamlet, which he knew so well that he never needed to refer to the text. He changed his mind, instinctively, but his instincts were unrivaled.

On Trial: Johnny Flynn as Burton and Mark Gatiss as Gielgud in National's The Motive and the Cue - Mark Douet

On Trial: Johnny Flynn as Burton and Mark Gatiss as Gielgud in National’s The Motive and the Cue – Mark Douet

“We were tremendously in awe of Sir John,” insists Sterne. “Everyone mostly listened to what he had to say, and Richard was grateful for all of his suggestions.” Indeed, an invaluable tranche of material, obtained by Sterne by hiding under the rehearsal room stage to record an extended tete-a-tete between the two acting giants, shows Burton consistently deferential.

“Gielgud was very popular,” says Croall. “When he showed Americans how to do it, they were annoyed but also amazed at his brilliance.” To stereotype Gielgud as the fuddy-duddy and Burton as the paragon of radical spontaneity would be “totally misleading” in his book. “Gielgud wanted Burton to succeed.” If anything, the demanding Gielgud became the production’s harshest critic, first pleased but ultimately enraged by the captured performance (filmed after he had left Broadway). He complained in a letter of “Richard joking and giving the most polite and raunchy performance. Everything I did for him was destroyed… I almost died of boredom looking at him.

Ultimately, despite mixed reviews, the production was a box-office triumph, running for 138 performances, beating Gielgud’s 1936 record for longest run on Broadway by six. It was the most profitable Hamlet in American theater history – not, one might say, the textbook definition of a disaster.

The Motive and the Cue takes place at the National’s Lyttelton Theatre, London SE1 (nationaltheatre.org.uk), from 20 April to 15 July

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