I’ll talk about a prince, and the standard he set for actors who still consider the conflicted Dane the ultimate test for them onstage. They have all done their iterations of him, struggled to bring out the storm-in-the-soul that continues to be interpreted by scholars. He may have made madness an existential requirement, and it is even more maddening for those who strive to mirror his mind. His lacerating asides, that contain some of the best one-liners ever imagined, copiously deployed by desperate hacks and sundry writers short of words, are poetry as agony. To utter them onstage is to form a secret covenant with the prince of hopelessness. The Hamlet test remains irresistible to any actor who in his performance of the loneliest of princes sees his own unlived possibilities. They have all held the skull and dreamed of perfection, and realised what it was to be an actor—Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Richard Burton, Kenneth Branagh, Benedict Cumberbatch…
The Motive and the Cue is a play about how a play is born when the protagonists in rehearsal are a stage genius who has already passed the Hamlet test so spectacularly together with the most famous Hollywood star of the moment married to the leading lady considered to be the most glamorous. Directed by Sam Mendes (whose The Lehman Trilogy was the highlight of my theatre experience in a previous London summer), it features more than the ego clash between John Gielgud and Richard Burton. The former is directing the latter for the role of Hamlet. Gielgud, a generation older than Burton, has been here before—his own depiction of the prince is rated as next only to Olivier’s. Burton, young and reckless and alcoholic, is a star burning bright, but he too wants to pass the Hamlet test, and so sure of himself, he now finds himself at the command of a Hamletian who has passed his prime. For Burton, in the initial scenes, Gielgud is trapped in the classicism defined by his rusty conviction from which he has no intention to escape or to accept this fresh talent who may look unhinged but is rooted in his own idea of the prince. For Gielgud, still living in the world he created out of his trysts with the prince who cried his soul out, he is suddenly burdened with an arrogant usurper whose talent is outweighed by his attitude. What comes out of the clash between these incompatible perceptions of Hamlet as represented by two gifted men is not a truncated piece of creativity, but the piercing beauty of conflict as depicted in the world’s most performed play itself.
I watched The Motive and the Cue, written by Jack Thorne, at National Theatre, and what made the production an exceptional piece of theatre was the performances by Mark Gatiss (Gielgud) and Johnny Flynn (Burton), clashing onstage as two variations of a character who believes that “all the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players.” Their differences don’t make them parallel lives; they, as director and actor, are united by the pursuit of the ultimate Hamlet experience. Burton, after a day of rehearsal, which invariably ends up as a session in humiliating his director, returns to his new wife Elizabeth Taylor (who is never brought to rehearsals). Their sexual intimacy is accentuated by the vibrant red that envelops the room. Gielgud, a loner, returns to isolation, the only solace being the shoulders of a male prostitute. In his loneliest of moments, after another day of being ridiculed by his lead actor, Gielgud escapes into a Hamlet-shaped recess of vacillation and grief.
Burton’s flamboyance and Gielgud’s quiet gravitas have a sociology behind them, and it adds to the gulf that separates their perceptions about playing Hamlet. Gielgud has a back story of stability and privilege; Burton, a miner’s son, was the working-class Welsh boy who went on to become a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking powerhouse of an actor who dominated both stage and screen. What we see in Sam Mendes’ production is how these men, in contrasting ways, live in reflected agony—you discover Hamlet by living him. What agitates Gielgud is the inevitability of being passive while another actor discovers his inner Hamlet. Burton’s imperfections in the rehearsals intensify his bonding with the prince that never ceases to propel his life. In the end, we realise that the unseen director in The Motive and the Cue is the deranged Dane himself, in full command over the two men transfixed by him. The Gielgud- Burton collaboration would become the record-breaking Hamlet (1964), the longest-running play in Broadway history. The Motive and the Cue is a compelling appreciation of what it takes to pass the Hamlet test—in art and life.
In the prince’s story, now from the sublime to the salacious. Prince Harry, the exile from Windsor, has become the first royal in more than a century to stand in a witness box, wallowing in page-one worthy victimhood. In his case against the Mirror Group Newspapers, which he claims to have hacked his voice mails and ransacked his private life, he has declared moral war on the press: “our country is judged globally by the state of our press and our government—both are at rock bottom.” The Mirror stories, in the version of the Prince Outcast, have made his life, under permanent surveillance, miserable, though it has emerged at the trial that the so-called offending stories have been carried by other papers as well. These are old stories, published in the Daily Mirror, the Sunday Mirror, and the People, spanning a decade from the mid- Nineties. The salacious bits include his former girlfriend and questions about his parenthood. By raging against the tabloidisation of his life, the prince has reclaimed his space in the mainstream media. The Royally-inclined press may see in the renegade’s moral outburst a desperate attempt to turn his post-palace life into a lone battle of Citizen Right, but the Duke of Sussex, who was only a fleeting glimpse at his father’s coronation, is building his own palace of illusion, with raw material collected from media portraits, whether it’s an Oprah Winfrey interview or a Netflix documentary. As Freddy Gray writes in the Spectator, “There is something tragicomic about Prince Harry’s crusade. It’s Don Quixote meets Fear and Loathing in Montecito.” Some princes get the theatre they deserve.