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FringeReview UK 2024

Low Down

An extraordinary production. If it’s a homage more magnificent than wholly revealing, it doesn’t stint on a riveting performance by Mark Gatiss, who glows with the still, sad music of Gielgud’s humanity.


Written and directed by Sam Mendes, Set Designer Es Devlin, Costume Design Katrina Lindsay, Lighting Design Jon Clarke, Composer Benjamin Kwasi Burrell, Sound Design Paul Arditti, Casting Alastair Coomer CDG and Naomi Downham, Associate Director Zoe Ford Burnett, Associate Set Designer Amalie White, Dialect Coach Charmian Hoare, Company Voice Work Cathleen McCarron, Staff Director Yasmin Hafesji.


Broadcast Team

Director for Screen Matthew Amos, Technical Producer Christopher C Bretnall, Lighting Director Bernie Davis, Soud Supervisor Conrad Fletcher, Script Supervisor Laura Vine

Till April 4th  at cinemas


“Because it was the best offer I’d had in quite some time.” This bald admission of John Gielgud’s to his loyal Assistant Jessica about directing Richard Burton in a stripped-back Hamlet on Broadway in 1964, comes at the lowest point in Jack Thorne’s The Motive and the Cue premiered at the National Theatre’s Lyttelton directed by Sam Mendes; and now screened on NT Live.

Indeed Thorne refracts much through Gielgud; it’s his then fading star we’re invited to side with, more inward than Burton’s hectoring blaze.

As for motives, they’re more mixed; another of Gielgud’s gifts is to help Burton find his – beyond a whisky ego. This goes beyond Gielgud’s proverbial “We open Monday” quip. The Gielgud/Burton Hamlet caught both actors at reverse trajectories: it’s arguable Gielgud’s career rose, Burton’s faltered.

With the help of transcribed recordings by actor William Redfield (permitted to take notes, not record, but owning to it after) Thorne explores those rehearsals aimed at producing a play that looks like a final run-through. By the end, you want to see that. Luckily you can see if not that run-through, the finished version as filmed.

Thorne develops a slow crisis through Act One with terrific final scenes, though that drops off swiftly in Act Two, leaving you not shorn of motive, or clues where pivots turn: we see what moment changes Burton beyond a few deflations.

He’s a magnificent monster tamed to grace through his wife Elizabeth Taylor’s intervention. And in a lunch she gives Gielgud the motive and the clue he needs to catch the conscience of the prince. And he plays a blinder.

Thorne sketches in a gallimaufry of characters you want to see developed, since several act on Burton, though the core work’s left to just-married Elizabeth. Still, at 2 hours 40, not a moment too long, there’s a limit to a play about a Hamlet rehearsal.

Es Devlin’s beguiling set features a sliding series of panels so the slight bleak grey and white-sashed rehearsal room is countered with sliding panels to reveal a fuschia-tinted interior, light-tipped at the bottom, as the Hollywood couple’s great hosting-pad, Jon Clark doing hopeless dusk and revelry glare, Katrina Lindsay’s costumes and interior picking out period detail. A smaller cobalt-blue room serves as office and Gielgud’s hotel-room, and so on.

Most Hamlet inset-scenes start with actors downstage to facilitate scene-changes and allow text to project a rehearsal day number surtitled with apposite quotes (on the NT Live screening, these are intolerably dimmed).

Benjamin Kwasi Burrell’s own brief, evocative music is almost upstaged by having (like Florian Zeller’s The Father) Bach Preludes and Fugues play between scenes, in Paul Arditti’s discreet sound design.

It’s where Frederick Young’s Barnardo (Huw Parmenter) and Robert Milli’s Horatio (Michael Walters) get most exposure, later appearing as racy party-goers bonding with Taylor as fellow child-actor who survived into the profession; alongside Alfred Drake, barely Claudius but more himself, in David Tarkenter’s suave urbanity.

Mendes has grafted a somewhat filmic patina on the whole, even the most intimate moments distanced more than usual. That’s emphasised in the screening, so looking curiously natural.

Mark Gatiss as Gielgud surpasses perhaps anything I’ve seen of his. As gently prodding autocrat disguised as democrat, self-deprecating, dropping occasional filthy jokes, the sheer professionalism and visual imagination of the actor in Gatiss’ hands holds not just players but everyone rapt; as he saws lines with silk and lets dying falls flutter.

It’s not mimesis: Gatiss projects a private Gielgud, working up something more than Thorne’s text. The scene when sex-worker Hugh McHaffie (Laurence Ubong Williams) peels back the Gielgud who simply wishes to talk is charged with pathos, and builds to the first emotional release of the production.

Gatiss too pitches a variety of Gielguds naturally: urbanity and charm with Taylor, paternal regard through to rage with Burton; solicitude with Assistant Jessica and Redfield himself, the disappointed Guildenstern; desperate measures to keep the company together after Burton’s drunken rages tear it apart.

Thus Gielgud’s great reflex in self-confidence after Burton’s shattering jibes is to lock himself in rehearsal, try to recapture his great Hamlet days. His own and his old character’s plight dovetails as Hamlet instructs the actors.

Whilst Gielgud essays his past, assessing whether he’s a director at all, there isn’t even a cough. It’s one of the most hushed, electrifying moments I can recall in recent theatre.

Johnny Flynn’s Burton alternates leonine suavity offstage, leavened by drink, and the beginnings of a mangy lion once inside the ring. Flynn’s reinventions of Burton’s jagged over-emphases, sheer ham and shredded iambic pentameters are wincingly funny, and Gatiss’ winces are the more treasurable for the gradations of restraint falling away as he goes about tackling Burton.

Initially Burton seems to offer Thorne less for Flynn to explore inwardness. But there’s that second emotional release. It’s prompted by Gielgud who’s now learned things from both McHaffie and Taylor, and lays his gentle trap. The effect on this Burton is magical.

Flynn’s darker materials – drunken rages, nasty asides, sneers and vicious parodies of Gielgud in particular culminate in an audience cheer when he’s slapped by Eileen Herlie – Janie Dee’s Gertrude is more regal than the lot of them at this point.

Dee’s Herlie/Gertrude is straight-down-the-line, sneaking a bit of Dorothy Parker – in a flask, perhaps – as she orients the company past slingbacks and arrowed bile, mainly Burton’s.

Elizabeth Taylor (Tuppence Middleton) reveals her own pathos only at the end. As Gielgud rather typically laments “Can you imagine doing your best work at twenty-five?”, Taylor counters “Can you imagine doing it at twelve?” Yet Gielgud gently praises her impromptu Juliet, executed when she thought no-one was looking.

Middleton’s Taylor is preternaturally wise on Burton, of his behaviour, his “classicist wanting to be modern, and a modern wanting to be a classicist”. And finally a warning to Burton that ”for once, I was happy to dance around you.” After all the hosting, scatological admissions of fart-competitions with her new husband, it’s in these later scenes mainly with Gatiss Middleton comes into her own.

Jessica Ley (Aysha Kala) exudes quick-witted sympathy in her role as Gielgud’s assistant, truth-telling without overstepping the mark. One of these is conferring whether to let the Ophelia of Linda Marsh (Phoebe Horn) go. Horn’s Ophelia though seems just a little bit intimate with Burton: Taylor ignores it; another backstory.

William Redfield (Luke Norris) as Guildenstern who wants to be Laertes but is in truth the abstract and brief chronicler of the 1964 production, charms his way to even Taylor’s notice, both principled in defusing a row, but downing the proffered drink Burton thrusts on him when the crisis is over, and overstepping the joke at a party.

Redfield knows he’s being taken down by Gielgud, but can’t quite work out where. One wincing moment is when Gielgud likens Guildenstern as duller-witted, like Gertrude, to Clement Fowler’s Rosencrantz (David Ricardo-Pearce) as the sharper-witted, Claudius-like figure, and gets the two to play that.

There’s winning lightning-sketches by the 18-strong cast, sometimes shadowing the character they’re playing, sometimes turning it on its head. Hume Cronyn (Alan Cordunier) as Polonius tries measuring sword-thrusts through the clothing so he won’t get killed, and anchors peace-making with self-deprecation to equal Sir John’s, as he  pulls Flynn out of the bloody chamber.

There’s glints from George Voskovec’s Player King (Ryan Ellsworth) and Christine Cooper’s Player Queen (Kate Tydman) again more lines out of rehearsal than in, though Dillon Evans’ Osric (Aaron Anthony), remains silent.

Again, Mike Burrows (Tom Babbage) and Susannah Mason (Elena Delia) both Stage Managers who a bit like the eponymous characters in Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, exist only in one place.

This luxuriously full company suggests that to mount revivals anywhere but the National, some parts could be trimmed. You get the feeling of a huge energy not entirely harnessed, that twenty minutes more, admittedly three hours, might have released something far deeper.

Nevertheless the immediate feeling is gratitude for this extraordinary production: chiefly for Gatiss’ Gielgud, but Flynn, Middleton, Dee, Norris, Williams and others enriching a narrative unashamedly about theatre, speaking up for its mirror and nature.

Its magnificence almost blinds one to how intricately Thorne has cued  characters real and imagined for his Gielgud. One’s revelatory about Burton, the other opens up Gielgud to himself. In turn Gielgud uses both these gifts on Burton.  Thorne’s vision is capped by a riveting performance by Gatiss, who glows with the still, sad music of Gielgud’s humanity.