(Jack Thorne’s article appeared in the Guardian, 4/7; via Pam Green; To thine own self be true … John Gielgud directs Richard Burton in rehearsals for Hamlet. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive.) 

The Motive and the Cue depicts John Gielgud’s struggle to direct Richard Burton in Hamlet on Broadway. Its writer describes the task of putting his words into such celebrated mouths

I have spent most of my life avoiding writing about real people. In fact, as a screenwriter, I’ve made half a career out of avoiding it. I wrote pieces that were almost about real people, but not quite. With my Channel 4 dramas National TreasureKiri and Help, out of necessity I wrote towards the truth but didn’t embrace it utterly. With National Treasure I wrote about historic sex crimes and referenced famous sex offenders, but didn’t write of them because to do so was very legally and ethically complicated and might involve upsetting or worsening the damage already done to victims. With Kiri we risked disrupting ongoing legal cases. With Help I wanted to write about care homes during the pandemic without exposing any one of them to unwelcome scrutiny.

As a dramatist this puts you in a difficult position: how do you make something feel true, but not be true? But it also gives you latitude to find a way into the story from an angle of your choosing. You talk to people, you uncover things, you try to represent stories as best you can.

Recently, however, I have been drawn to real events. I find myself writing about real people. Some historical, some current, all complicated. That dual obligation, which better writers than me have struggled with, of telling something that is engaging and true. Having an obligation to your subjects that goes beyond your obligation as a storyteller and perhaps even your obligation to the truth as you understand it is terrifying, for me at least.

With real people you have to feel their breath as they tell their story to you, and you have to feel their breath as you (later) tell them the way you will tell their story. Last year I co-wrote a drama with Genevieve Barr called Then Barbara Met Alan about the disabled rights movement. Alan and Barbara are heroes to both of us, but in order to tell their story properly we had to show the raw reality of them. Did they like that exposure? Not all of it. But we adjusted our story and ended up with something that represented them in a way they were brave enough to be comfortable with.

Later this month, we begin previewing a play I’ve written for the National Theatre about Sir John Gielgud directing Richard Burton playing Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. The idea first came from Sam Mendes and he directs it. The play contains, by necessity, Gielgud, Burton, Elizabeth Taylor, Hume Cronyn, Eileen Herlie, William Redfield and many, many more. Figures that are iconic, figures that lots of people have a history with, either in person or in passion.

How do you do justice to these incredible figures? How do you feel able to do justice to them? Particularly in a single evening. These are questions I’ve really struggled with.

There are two accounts of that original rehearsal period. Both are very interesting works. One by Redfield, the actor playing Guildenstern, which takes the form of letters he wrote to a friend detailing the process. The other by Richard Sterne, a “Gentleman” in the show, who went to extraordinary lengths to get accurate recordings of the rehearsals as they took place. There are also numerous biographies and written materials about all the major figures, as well as Burton’s diaries and Gielgud’s letters.

It was a very difficult production. Burton behaved badly because he didn’t get the direction from Gielgud he felt he required. Or perhaps because he got more direction than he expected. The two, who were prior friends, couldn’t work out how their Hamlet might work. What was Burton trying to do playing him? He was the most famous actor in the world by this point – he and Elizabeth Taylor literally invented the paparazzi with their glamour – so why put on a hair shirt when he could be earning millions doing something less taxing?

Gielgud, in contrast, was on his uppers: Laurence Olivier was running the National, the Royal Shakespeare Company weren’t much interested in him, and the Royal Court and “modern theatre” was increasingly dominating the West End. He took the job because he didn’t have many other offers. The easy thing to do would have been to allow Burton to dominate. But Hamlet mattered to Gielgud, he’d played him quite definitively more than 300 times, and he wouldn’t let it go. Disaster quickly loomed.

Sam Mendes said two things in particular that really stuck with me as I tried to write the play. The first was that he wanted it to be something which took people inside a genuine rehearsal process. This was the height of lockdown and both of us were desperate to be back inside a rehearsal room; he wanted to explain the process of making a play and make it feel dynamic. How do you reflect on a process which aims to reflect life? The second was that this was to be about classical theatre meeting modern ideas. Gielgud was the epitome of tradition, looking back to his aunt Ellen Terry and her theatrical partner Henry Irving; Burton was bursting to be modern, while paradoxically yearning for ideals of classical theatre.

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