A theatrical tease opens both halves: the voice of Noel Coward singing “There’s a right way and a wrong way, an old way and a new way” for the opening,   and after the interval  “Why must the show go on?”  .  

     Neat: for by that time we are wondering how it ever can.  Jack Thorne’s new play, directed with devoted love by Sam Mendes, is an imaginative (and  partly archival) reconstruction of the fraught rehearsals of Richard Burton’s Hamlet, directed in 1964 by Sir John Gielgud. 

      The younger man was not yet 40, just married to Liz Taylor, superstars after Cleopatra; the veteran director was sixty, in a slight doldrum, but  this unlikely pairing was “the best offer I’d had for quite some time’.   Here’s classical  versus modern, lyrical diffidence versus violent impulsiveness,  opposites  collaborating over this most personally revealing of plays.  Hamlet is any actor’s Everest, the calling card, not only a play about revenge but about acting itself: seeming, dissembling, asking immense questions.  Soliloquies give a chance to make your own self real in the part.   On his Old Vic pinnacle forty years earlier, it was Gielgud’s: how could he help this volcanic, frequently drunk star towards it?  How  relate to an impatient firebrand who at first  sees Hamlet as a man who just can’t make his bloody mind up, rather than a Gielgudesque philosopher battling poetically with his conscience?    In one wonderful observation – there are some very good laughs, not least in the Polonius stabbing rehearsal – Gielgud  mourns that a real. Burton Hamlet, once instructed by a ghost to kill his stepfather, would do so immediately . Not worry about it for three marvellous hours.  

    “You must”he says  “let the play distort you!”   And   “You shout wonderfully, you and Larry both..but there’s a music in this speech which us?”  There are some sly actorish jokes, not least Burton’s typical performer hatred of  “line readings” when Gielgud can’t help offering intonations. Burton, a splenetically rude Johnny Flynn,   calls Gielgud’s lyrical style “singsong”.    Mark Gatiss is a revelation as Gielgud: after one row there’s a profoundly moving moment before a black curtain when he simply speaks the Ghost’s words.  He is saying it for all past generations pleading  to help guide the young: “I am thy father’s spirit, doomed for a certain term to walk the night..”.   

       Scenes of cast horseplay or drunken larking in the star’s lush hotel room underline their difference, and the  first act ends with an unspeakably brutal, humiliating rant by Burton,  exaggeratedly mocking both text and director while the rest of the cast cringe in embarrassment  (they’re impressive, especially Janie Dee as Eileen who delivers real beauty in Gertrude’s Ophelia speech). Left alone, wondering if the whole ghastly project is  over, Gielgud quietly delivers the advice-to-the-actors speech with cool sorrowful beauty. 

           Indeed both Thorne and Mendes know absolutely what to do with the pieces of Shakespearean magic granted them by telling this story.  Flynn does not quite have Burton’s thrilling timbre, but flashes of wonder sometimes surface.  Notably, in the second half a intriguing and intelligent conversation between  Gielgud and Liz Taylor (Tuppence Middleton, nicely sarky and seductive)  provides a clue as to how her wayward man express through Hamlet something real and deep and damaged from his own life.  Gielgud uses what he learns . And suddenly,  as he and Burton sit  alone close together, it happens: Flynn speaks “to be or not to be” with a  helpless immensity,   feeling and digging deep to old despairs,  at last not acting up but owning it. Hairs stand up on your neck.

        With another kind of beauty there is  an unexpected moment when the near-despairing Gielgud – still bruised  by his scandalous homosexual arrest years before – calls in a sex worker in lonely defiance. The roughneck, dismissed unused,  divines his hurt and refuses to leave without “a cuddle”.  Gielgud is shocked by the rough-trade using this word,  and is met with the dry observation  “Hey ,we all got mothers”.  In his arms the weary veteran weeps, jokes about it,  and weeps again.  

         It could have been an intrusion but no.  For while sometimes you think you are seeing a witty insider masterclass on Hamlet and the evolution of acting styles,  what Thorne really offers is a story about humanity, vulnerability,  reconciliation.   The first-night ending   is blazingly triumphant, and  with a bit of directorial cheek in this historic week, even a burst of Zadok the Priest.   Hurrying to Waterloo, under a big moon I came upon another rehearsal:  hundreds of Royal Marines and Scots Guards, just beginning to drum.  

Box office to July 15th

Rating.  Five.


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