Hamlet: The Motive and the Cue
the plangent voice crooning plaintively
Some of you disliked the timing of my piece about Martin Amis. One kindly subscriber sent me two very helpful emails, and I see now that it would have been better to wait a few days. My apologies to anyone who was offended.
I wrote about why the distasteful politics of NatCon might be more in-line with the tradition of Tory thinking than it seems. American populism it may be, but this is how the dynamics of Toryism operate. As the historian William B. Willcox wrote, we are at the end “an era of materialism, which in turn bred a romantic reaction…” and we are now seeing a reversion to “Toryism, as contrasted with materialism.”
I remember the first time I heard Gertrude’s speech about the death of Ophelia: it was a rehearsal of a school production of Hamlet. The girl playing Gertrude had the native capacity to, in Hamlet’s words, “beget a temperance that may give it smoothness.” It is a speech that benefits from being underplayed. Eileen Herlie (video) caught this tone perfectly in the 1964 Hamlet, directed by John Gielgud. That production is now the subject of the new play at the Lyttelton Theatre, The Motive and the Cue.
This was Richard Burton’s Hamlet, a celebrated production—but since it was directed by John Gielgud, the greatest actor of the twentieth century, and, more importantly, the greatest Hamlet, the question of the production is: whose Hamlet will it be, Burton’s or Gielgud’s? The Motive and the Cue is a historical play, working from the book Letters from an Actor, which records the experience of one of the actors, William Redfield, in the production, who secretly recorded many of the sessions—including one attended only by Gielgud and Burton.
Here is how Redfield describes Gielgud’s directing style:—
…he suddenly stops the rehearsal, rises to the balls of his feet, and rushes forward digitigrade—one arm outstretched, the plangent voice crooning plaintively, “Try this! Try this!”—and then proceeds to rattle off King Claudius’s entire first speech to the court, beginning “Tho yet of Hamlet our dear brother’s death the memory be green”, which is surely one of the most difficult and convoluted in all Shakespeare. He uses the speech glibly and lightly, solely for the purpose of demonstration. It is a chastening demonstration indeed, since I am next to certain Sir John has never played the part. In the midst of chanting one of Gertrude’s speeches, he will weep thin streams of tears and his face will turn red with feeling, and he hasn’t played Gertrude either. Once his point has been made, the weeping ceases abruptly and the speech is finished.
This is biographical writing of the first order, Izaac Walton style, showing us Gielgud as if he was there before us. Mark Gatiss gets this side of Gielgud just so, with the plangent voice crooning plaintively. The whole performance is thoroughly absorbing. I would gladly go back to see him again.
There are several weak spots—the awful luvvy cliches about the power of theatre, the pacing of act two, the Burton-Taylor dynamic (I mean, try replicating this…), and Burton’s accent—but the overall effect is sharp and lively. I was in am-dram once upon a while and the post-rehearsal actor’s party was all too real. It takes too long to get to the act three climax, but after that the whole thing runs forward like a steam-train that makes the tree branches bend like whips as it spins past. And then—! What pathos, what drama at the end. I was covered with chills.
If you love Hamlet, or Gielgud, go and see this play. If paid subscribers are interested, I will run a bonus session on Hamlet, the greatest piece of writing in English literature, bar none.
If you enjoyed this, you might also enjoy my profile of the forgotten Shakespearean actor Baliol Holloway.
Paid subscribers get extra essays, like this one about J.S. Mill, genius, and education. They also join the Common Reader Book Club. Last week we discussed David Copperfield and subscribers got my essay and video about the context of the novel, its relation to Dickens’s life, his stinking antifeminism, and how Copperfield encodes Carlyle’s idea of heroes, something I think critics have overlooked.