Gielgud (Mark Gatiss) vs Burton (Johnny Flynn). Image: Mark Douet

Hamlets within Hamlets within Hamlets

Shakespeare’s tragedy keeps on fascinating audiences and playwrights—but are we truly engaging with the text or just fetishising it?
January 24, 2024

Last summer, I caught The Motive and the Cue at the National Theatre. Jack Thorne’s play, back at London’s Noël Coward Theatre until the end of March, showcases two celebrated actors playing two even more celebrated actors. Mark Gatiss becomes John Gielgud, and Johnny Flynn becomes Richard Burton, in a fictionalisation of the artistic clashes that took place when Gielgud directed Burton as Hamlet in 1964.

Inevitably, the Hamlet scenes in which Shakespeare’s hero turns theatre director feature heavily. There are plays within plays, rehearsal rooms within rehearsal rooms. The Motive and the Cue is interested in the acting craft, with Gielgud and Burton each bringing clashing methods to the rehearsal room. As Tuppence Middleton’s smart but implausibly approachable Elizabeth Taylor explains: Burton, the son of a Port Talbot drunk, is struggling to identify with the diffident son of a Danish king. Gielgud is more interested in sounding out the poetry of the verse.

Watching last July, I had my own meta-theatrical experience. A few rows ahead of me, seemingly alone and pensive, was Tom Stoppard, whose Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead is the most famous 20th-century drama to play games with Hamlet. If there’s one inner monologue I’d have paid West End prices to hear, it’s his response to Gatiss’s response to Gielgud’s response to Burton’s response to Hamlet.

Hamlet encourages us to think in this associative and intertextual way. Hamlet, the man, is both a critic and a frustrated actor-director; his language is a web of allusions. “What’s Hecuba to him, or he to Hecuba, that he should weep for her?” he asks of one actor. Modern audiences know that this can be asked of any Greek tragedy, but Shakespeare’s contemporaries would have also understood it as a jab at the way the Greek play Hecuba had saturated early-modern culture, after Erasmus’s 1506 translation of it into Latin established it as a school set text. (A description of Hecuba’s tears in Plutarch’s Life of Pelopidas was also a source.) Hamlet himself is adrift from his community, Shakespeare’s anglicised Denmark of the Reformation, yet with his words he constantly attempts to resituate himself within its cultural hinterland.

Anglophone audiences have always lapped up plays that respond directly to Hamlet. Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead opened as an Edinburgh Fringe production in 1966—to an audience of six critics and one paying stranger. By the end of 1967, it had sold out performances in London’s Old Vic and Broadway’s Alvin Theatre.

Audiences have always lapped up plays that respond directly to Hamlet

It wasn’t the first play to enjoy success by refocusing on Hamlet’s university friends and throwing in a few cracks about the theatrical scene. WS Gilbert—the lyricist half of Gilbert and Sullivan—had a hit in the early 1890s with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, A Tragic Episode, in Three Tabloids. In this string of comic sketches, King Claudius hides a dirty secret—not fratricide, but a misguided, youthful attempt at playwrighting. He has banned all mention of the work, but Rosencrantz, who wants to steal Ophelia, tricks Hamlet into staging it.

As Shakespeare does in Hamlet, Gilbert snipes at the habits of actors he finds particularly infuriating. “Let there be no huge red noses,” his Hamlet lectures us, “nor extravagant monstrous wigs, nor coarse men garbed as women in this comi-tragedy.” But late-Victorian audiences also loved his play because of the way it parodied Hamlet’s soliloquys—and, thus, our own fascination with Hamlet.

Hamlet is an exceptional play, but an industry has grown up that fetishises it as a cultural object rather than appreciating it as a creative experience. (Hamnet, the RSC play about the death of Shakespeare’s son, now at the end of its London run, has touches of this. The play—and the novel by Maggie O’Farrell from which it is adapted—superbly deconstructs misogynistic myths around Shakespeare’s wife, Anne Hathaway, but the ending, in which she finds her husband has channelled his grief into Hamlet, is pure Lifetime movie.) In the economy of this industry, Hamlet’s speeches are merely set-pieces that actors can turn into calling cards, rather than integrated moments in the development of the play. (Hence my distaste when the 2015 Barbican production started with a broody Benedict Cumberbatch delivering “To be or not to be” like an opening number at a rock concert.)

Gilbert mocked this fetish; The Motive and the Cue approaches it more carefully. A subsection of its audience is clearly there to play bingo with famous lines—or, infuriatingly, to recite Hamlet’s speeches themselves in time with Flynn. Thorne gives them what they came for, including a moment of Burton unlocking “To be or not to be”, but he pays more attention to the textual dynamics of “What a piece of work is a man” in the proper context of Hamlet’s relationship with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Where familiar lines are quoted, they are made new.

Like Hamnet, however, The Motive and the Cue has an atrociously clichéd final tableau. “Zadok the Priest” swells, as Flynn-as-Burton takes the classic pose with Yorick’s skull, and captions tell us of his future triumphs and mortality. For the most part, The Motive and the Cue is a thoughtful response to the Hamlet industry. But when it comes to the big clichés, it wants to have its cake and eat it too.