Sunday, May 12, 2024

Motives, cues: on theatre, film, stardom and posterity

(wrote this for my Economic Times column)

Filmed theatre – the recording and subsequent screening of a live stage production – isn’t to many tastes: it usually has neither the immediacy of a good play nor the kinetic visual appeal of a good film. I have been wary of the form ever since my school showed us an astonishingly dull “film” of The Merchant of Venice, which felt like it was created by having a stationary camera placed in the first row at a theatre.

And yet, I greatly enjoyed a recent screening – at Delhi’s India Habitat Centre – of The Motive and the Cue, Jack Thorne’s play about the inter-generational clashes between two major British actors – Sir John Gielgud and Richard Burton, during a 1964 Hamlet production in which the former directed the latter.

One reason for this is that I’m a Hamlet-nut and have some interest in the real-life people portrayed here – especially Gielgud, marvellously played by Mark Gatiss (but also Burton and Elizabeth Taylor, who were newly married at the time, and who are mostly shown here in an apartment with pink-ish art design to emphasise their plastic, Hollywood-celebrity life). To fully appreciate this play, you probably need that interest. But even otherwise, The Motive and the Cue didn’t feel static to me. Cinematically you’d never mistake this for an Oppenheimer, of course, but it was thoughtfully put together: some of the establishing scenes were long-shots where you could see not just the entire stage but also part of the original theatre audience sitting in the dark; once a scene proper got underway and the camera “zoomed in” to the action, there were cuts and close-ups. Altogether, it was a strange, compelling experience – not “cinema” as one thinks of it, and yet a reminder that there have been so many different types of films, including the anti-narrative ones, or the Brechtian ones that call attention to their own construction. (I caught myself thinking of Lars von Trier’s Dogville, with its set design made up of painted, labelled outlines of furniture.)

Many of this play’s scenes are about plumbing Shakespeare’s verse for meaning and insight – an inflection here, a pause there, how one performer’s emphasis can be very different from another’s (and how each actor’s life experience – a relationship with a parent, for instance – might inform their approach to the scenes between Hamlet and his father’s ghost). What Gielgud tells Burton about the difference between the motive (the intellect or spine) and the cue (the passion, which ignites the heart) is a version of what Hamlet tells the players while setting his “mouse-trap” for the king.

Most of all, there are poignant moments here which make a case for the filmed-theatre form, in terms of preserving an important stage performance. The Motive and the Cue felt to me like a lament for all the great theatre of the past that was never recorded, and which we can only imagine now. Gatiss’s Gielgud at one point mentions that his major rival Laurence Olivier only played Hamlet on stage once, but will forever be remembered in the role because of his Oscar-winning film version (whereas Gielgud’s own legendary performances of the 1920s can no longer be revisited and exist only in imagination and anecdote).

This play often touches on the insecurities of artists, constantly worrying about posterity (even when the present moment seems full of fame and attention), being unsure about their sell-by date. In one scene, almost certainly a fictionalised one, Gielgud and Elizabeth Taylor are chatting. “Can you imagine doing your best work at age 25?” he says ruefully, an allusion to the reputation he built, very young, as the greatest actor of his generation. “Can you imagine doing it at age 12?” Taylor replies sardonically – a reference to her performance as a child actor in the film National Velvet (during the shooting of which she also says she learnt Method Acting from Mickey Rooney, of all people!). Liz is one of the world’s biggest movie stars at this point, a recent Oscar-winner, and yet she and Burton seem very conscious that something valuable has been lost in terms of their integrity as performers; that after the media circus surrounding their affair during the Cleopatra shoot, they need to be more than just fodder for celebrity gossip. Maybe *they* need to do some Shakespeare together – The Taming of the Shrew?

That film, made by Franco Zeffirelli a few years later, holds up well today; but it’s widely agreed that the bulk of the other films that Burton and Taylor did together were misfires. (The Leonard Maltin movie guide once “reviewed” their 1968 movie Boom! with the single word “Thud”.) In that sense, it feels like a cosmic joke that while many mediocre films are around forever (assuming anyone wants to seek them out), most great theatre is forever gone. Who is the really sympathetic figure in that interaction between Gielgud and Taylor, one can wonder: the stage legend depressed that there are few who remember his finest work, or the film-star concerned that the limelight is too harsh and persistent?

P.S. along with Gatiss, I thought Johnny Flynn (who plays another “Dickie” in the new Ripley series) was very good as Richard Burton. He doesn’t particularly look or sound like Burton initially, but he grows into the part enough that by the end I fancied I could see Burton’s features in his.

P.P.S. I also enjoyed the little reference to the birth of Vanessa Redgrave during a performance where her father Michael was playing Laertes to Olivier’s Hamlet on stage in 1937. I remembered the story from Donald Spoto’s Olivier book.


  1. Have you seen the 1965 film La Boheme, directed by Franco Zeffirelli?
    It is filmed opera, and I thought it worked well.

    The original New York Times review was quite complimentary.

    The picture does not pertend to be a movie in the sense that, say, "La Dolce Vita" is a movie. But those expecting a stiff Technicolor tintype of a staged performance will be pleasantly surprised. Franco Zeffirelli, the director, uses his camera to clarify points sometimes obscure in live performances (the key-dropping business in the first act, for example). During the riotous Cafe Momus scene, Mr. Zeffirelli's camera even provides a kind of visual obbligato to Puccini's music.

    1. That's interesting, thanks! No, I haven't seen the film...