Hamlet gone for a burton

Jack Thorne’s play is about rehearsals for a play that is staged as if were a rehearsal of Hamlet, which features Hamlet staging a play. The fact that The Motive and The Cue recently transferred from the South Bank to the West End theatre where John Gielgud actually played Hamlet, adds yet another twist to this Gordian knot of a play. The play is being performed to a sold out auditorium in London so the chance to see it at the Corn Hall as part of the NTlive programme was very welcome.

Over the course of these rehearsals, director Gielgud battles with Richard Burton over their competing vision of what sort of Hamlet they are bringing to the stage. Praise has been heaped upon Mark Gatiss for his portrayal of Sir John, and rightly so, but Johnny Flynn is just as good. As the charismatic Burton,  a huge talent hampered by his weakness for drink, he has to play Burton playing Hamlet – badly. It’s a big task, not least because Gatiss plays the fading theatre actor with such vulnerability and pathos. The play isn’t quite a two hander, despite the modest roles taken by the majority of an unusually large cast, and it’s actually Tuppence Middleton, as the worldly wise Elizabeth Taylor, who gets all the best lines, undercutting Burton’s bravado and Gielgud’s pretention.

The action is further elevated by Es Devlin’s stunning sets, which you would think Edward Hopper had a hand in, while Sam Mendes direction keeps things briskly moving along. There’s also a healthy chunk of Hamlet thrown into the mix, cleverly highlighting the themes of the play by cherry picking key scenes. This is a play about familial relationships, doubt, love, aging and disappointment. It’s also about theatre itself – the sort of play that makes you feel clever just by watching it.