Filmed in 2023 this is a fabulous play for theatre lovers- a play about rehearsals for a play (Hamlet) with the clash of two theatrical icons (Gielgud and Burton) and a third (Sir Lawrence Olivier) the hidden elephant in the room. And not forgetting the sumptuous Elizabeth Taylor. It is a play about acting, actors and life in the theatre.

Jack Thorne’s play reveals behind the scenes of Richard Burton’s Hamlet and his clash with Sir John Gielgud as they prepare for the 1964 Broadway production sensation. It contrasts opposites : theatre vs film, classicism vs radical modernism.) The play illuminates the stresses and strains both men were experiencing. Gielgud feels he is now extraneous, his acting style now rather obsolete whilst Burton, having recently married Elizabeth Taylor, is one of the top A list biggest stars globally, a very heavy drinker,  yet hankering for his name to remain famous in perpetuity. (For their era, Taylor and Burton were like the Beatles  or today’s Taylor Swift – al global phenomenon.

Burton and Gielgud are contrasted when we see how Gielgud is in spartan accommodation and eating sandwiches whilst Burton and Taylor are clad in sumptuous clothes and living  in lavish apartments.

There is a cast of sixteen but the play concentrates on Gielgud and Burton. The set design by E.S.Devlin is magnificent, seemingly very simple but very slick, jumping between Burton and Taylor’s rooms and the monochrome  rehearsal studio. The costumes, also by Devlin are dazzling, especially for Elizabeth Taylor.

The play is about how actors pass on a role, also how they absorb the character they are playing and how that affects them and develops their own ‘voice’ about the part. Theatrical superstitions are also mentioned (eg about The Scottish Play). Shakespeare is called by the company Uncle Will.

John Flynn as Burton is superb.He doesn’t overdo the Welsh accent but still channels the Port -Talbot raised Hollywood star, his white woollen roll neck worn as if a protective bodysuit. He doesn’t think he is the right casting for Hamlet and struggles with a combination of his self-doubt and self-assurance. The rehearsals becoming increasingly tense and strained – Burton requests more direction from Gielgud but then erupts with ferocity when given notes – especially line readings, which he deciphers as Gielgud attempting to impose his own version of Hamlet onto him.

Mark Gatiss as Gielgud is also magnificent. His Gielgud is a man in transmutation, touchy and supercilious at times as his more traditional stagecraft is overwhelmed by radical new ideas. He feels abandoned but is still capable to outclass Burton. Gatiss is just as impressive, his uncanny Gielgud manifesting a man in flux, as a new era of performance threatens to subsume his traditional take on stagecraft. Thorne has given him some of the best lines in the play, from caustic barbs to ‘luvvie’ bon mots.He is also a multi layered ,outstandingly gifted talent now dealing with the feeling of being archaic in the one place he felt acknowledged and lauded.

Tuppence Middleton is tremendous in her portrayal of Elizabeth Taylor. In his play Thorne makes her a peacemaker behind the scenes..She is glorious in stunning outfits, slinky and kittenish at times and like the others is a theatre person, regarding the stage as a sacred space. Her ‘Gallop apace, you fiery-footed steeds, ‘speech from Romeo and Juliet’ she performs thinking she is alone is magnificent. (Taylor and Burton in their intimate talks discuss other Shakespearean plays they could do such as ‘The Taming of the Shrew’ etc, future movies they do make that brings in yet more money such as ‘Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf’? ‘Cleopatra’ though was a failure. Taylor also acts as a psychologist, tackling Burton’s Oedipus issues so he can further unravel his Hamlet.

Can Burton help Gielgud remain significant in an era of radical theatrical reform? Will Gielgud lead Burton in to a sensational performance? This play deals with a lot of issues – illustriousness, machismo, lust, inexperience ,deterioration, maturity and adroitness – becoming an ode to the glory of striving for perfection.

The production is a NT Live co-production with Neal Street Productions.

Running time 2 hours 45 minutes including interval.

NT LIVE: The Motive and the Cue