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On April 9, 1964, a production of Hamlet opened on Broadway in New York. It starred Richard Burton and was directed by Sir John Gielgud. It received a great deal of publicity and was a successful production, but the brouhaha may have had little to do with the quality of the director and the star actor. The publicity was generated probably more by Burton’s recent marriage to Elizabeth Taylor than by the production of a play by William Shakespeare.
The production has become legendary and almost 60 years later it has spawned an outstanding play by Jack Thorne and a production by the National Theatre of Great Britain directed by the eminent Sam Mendes. It represents outstanding theatre and a lecture about the famous play that should not be missed. And it is great to hear what the great stars had to say about Shakespeare and their views of the iconic play.
The play takes us through many of the days of rehearsal of Hamlet with sections of the script performed for us in preparation for the opening. We get titillating views of the life of Burton and Taylor, but the main thrust is the relationship and confrontations between John Gielgud, the suave, gentlemanly, and brilliant actor of the previous generation who has undertaken the job as a knowledgeable and masterly director. He has detailed views of how scenes and soliloquies can be effectively performed. Mark Gatiss plays Gielgud brilliantly. He has mastered Gielgud’s voice and his mannerisms including thrusting his head upwards. It is as if we were listening to the great Gielgud himself.
Richard Burton is a great or could-have-been a great actor except for the fact that he preferred the money of Hollywood to the adulation of serious drama. He is young, brash, opinionated, occasionally drunk, offensive and disagrees with Gielgud on many points. The disagreements cause flareups, but Gielgud never ceases to be a gentleman who wants to persuade and let Burton find his way into the great role.
There is a large cast that are in effect satellites to the director/actor differences. Rosencrantz (Huw Parmenter) and Guildenstern (Luke Norris), the comic nonentities of the play are treated seriously by Gielgud who points out that they do have a serious role in what they do. Allan Corduner plays Hume Cronyn who played Polonius in the production. Ryan Ellsworth is superb as George Voscovec who played the Player King in New York. David Tarkenter plays Alfred Drake who acted as Claudius in 1964.
If anyone can direct a play with masterly results it is Sam Mendes who is one of the best. The play has numerous scene changes from a rehearsal room to hotel rooms (one of which is used by Gielgud for an assignation with a male prostitute) to the stage for performance of specific scenes. Es Devlin is the set designer.
The production feels like a documentary, and it is, largely. Richard L Steme took it upon himself to record every word that Gielgud spoke about the play in rehearsal. He recorded everything including a private meeting between Burton and Gielgud. Before the session began, Steme climbed under the rehearsal platform and pulled a cloth over the tape recorder and himself. He wrote a book, “John Gielgud Directs Richard Burton in Hamlet” which has not only reliable but verbatim information about all aspects of the preparation of the production including the private session by Gielgud and Burton.
Who would not want to see Elizabeth Taylor play a peacemaker between her husband and the great Gielgud? Details about small points in producing Hamlet and life behind the scenes of a production are endlessly fascinating and this play has them all. A theatrical delight.
The Motive and the Cue by Jack Thorne in a production by Neal Street and the National Theatre continues at the Noel Coward Theatre, St. Martin’s Lane, London, U. K WC2N 4AU.

February 1, 2024
Cultural - Κριτική Καλών Τεχνών

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