Jack Thorne on his new play about Richard Burton and John Gielgud’s Hamlet: “Rehearsals can be brutal”
Sam Mendes was in New York before the pandemic, when he came across a book by little-known actor Richard L Sterne about his time on a legendary production of Hamlet on Broadway. This 1964 show was directed by John Gielgud, one of the greats of English theatre, and starred Richard Burton, then one half of the most famous couple on the planet. It proved an explosive mix.
Sterne’s book was called, rather prosaically, John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton Playing Hamlet: A Journal of Rehearsals but it offered an extraordinary insight into the tensions and the conflicts that went into making that show. And the source could not have been closer to the action. Stern went to great lengths to get the material, at one stage hiding under the stage to secretly record a discussion between the director and his star.
A few months after finding the book, Mendes came across a work by another member of the cast. Letters from an Actor by William Redfield – he was in the larger role of Guildenstern, where Sterne was simply the walk-on part of Gentleman – and the Oscar-winning director realised that the two accounts offered more than enough to create a great play.
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. It took these two accounts as its starting point to recreate the making of the play, exploring an extraordinary clash of personalities, of celebrity, and of classical versus modern theatre.
Mendes had sent the books to Thorne, whose work includes Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for theatre and His Dark Materials, Kiri and Help on TV, and the writer loved them. For Mendes, the interest lay in approaches to directing and changes in ideas of theatre. For Thorne it was different, and more emotional.
Burton “was right in the centre of the melee. 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 worked out, separate from those two books, where Gielgud was at, that was the moment that locked it for me. He wasn’t in a great place at the time. The previous decades had been defined by him and Laurence Olivier, and Olivier was running the National Theatre. Gielgud was on the outside.”
Thorne says, “As someone who’s been in this industry for 20 years, I’ve seen that and I’ve seen what it feels like. That to me was really interesting to write about.”
As well as the two actors’ books, there was a wealth of documentary material for Thorne to trawl throug,h including Richard Burton’s diaries (though they don’t cover the rehearsals specifically, “you get a sense of where he was at”), Gielgud’s letters and all sorts beside.
“There was a lot, but that was delicious as I was in lockdown,” Thorne says. He would do phonics with his child in the morning, then his wife would take over and “I’d disappear into 1960s theatre, which was a gorgeous thing. Having those personalities rattling around my head during that bubble was glorious for me.”
Contrary to what casual theatre goers may think, following the rehearsal process on a show like this is ripe for dramatisation, Thorne says. “I love rehearsal processes, but many people don’t understand them. It’s not just, ‘Stand there, and stand there.’”
They are places where ideas form, but personalities clash, and this production of Hamlet was intense, with tensions running high between the star and director. “No one knows for sure but I think things got pretty bad,” he says. “I’ve been in rehearsal rooms like this, as has Sam. As has Mark, as has Johnny. We talked a lot about it, going through it.”
Burton did not behave well, and felt unprepared; and Gielgud was struggling to come up with a vision for their Hamlet – it was a role the latter had also played hundreds of times – and the title of the new play comes from a speech by Hamlet. They couldn’t figure out how to make it work – and yet it would go on to have the longest run for Hamlet on Broadway.
“It’s a weird thing making a play,” 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 to blame others when the process isn’t working. “I’ve seen it happen plenty of times. It’s only got as brutal as this a couple of times, but I have seen that brutality and Sam definitely has seen it. It’s hard. You realise at the end of it someone is going to stand there on the stage, and if they don’t know what they’re doing and they feel exposed, it’s the worst thing.”
Thorne says his main exposure to it has been on TV sets “where people have behaved really badly. But sometimes for very good reason. Sometimes you have to separate yourself from it. They’re tumultuous places; people get screamed at.”
Taylor was another great personality to throw into the mix. While she was not in the production, the couple were newly married – they had met on the set of blockbuster Cleopatra in 1962 – and she was present around the rehearsal process. “I really wanted Taylor to be central because I think she was,” Thorne says.
Her relationship with Burton was fascinating, and there were moments of her “just enjoying poking the bear”, Thorne continues. “We watched this extraordinary interview and they’re both just goading each other. Burton keeps getting up and making drinks and smoking all the way through, seemingly not interested where the camera is. Taylor starts listing the things they say to each other that you’d never see a modern celebrity do. She’s like, ‘Richard likes talking about my double chin.’”
Burton and Gielgud’s Hamlet was filmed on its 100 performance on Broadway, and is available on YouTube. Thorne watched it several times, before Mendes arranged a screening for the whole company.
“That was remarkable as it changed my impression of the play. On YouTube you don’t quite get inside it,” he says. “Whether it was a great performance, a good performance or a poor performance, that’s subject to debate, and people have given different reviews of it. But there is something very interesting in how Burton constructed it. There was something very beautiful about his performance. When we watched it as a company, there was an awful lot of respect for it.”
Thorne has made a career studiously avoiding writing about real people and is “hungry to get back to fiction again as this is a difficult path... I found it very difficult and constantly worried about it; that I’m not respecting them or doing something wrong or damaging these great heroes and people I love.
“And yet you can’t tell their story without telling their raw truth, because what’s the point?” he continues. “The act of love is telling the whole of them. I have definitely fallen in love with Burton, Taylor and Gielgud. I’m not sure I’d want to be friends with any of them and I see their flaws. But I do think they’re remarkable and I want to do justice to them and I wanted to protect them at the same time.”
The Motive and the Cue is at the National Theatre from May 2 to July 15; nationaltheatre.org.uk