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Posts Tagged ‘Peter O’Toole’

Of all the plays I was expecting next from Jack Thorne, this wasn’t it. He’s a brilliant playwright, with an impressive back catalogue culminating in the global success of the Harry Potter plays, but this is very much new territory for him. It’s the true story of John Gielgud directing Richard Burton as Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. I found it a captivating and illuminating insight into the rehearsal process and the relationship between the director and his leading man, two very different personalities, from very different backgrounds.

It covers the whole 25-day rehearsal period, mostly in the rehearsal room itself, with occasional diversions to the Burton-Taylor apartment, a hotel room and a restaurant. Burton and Taylor have just got married (for the first time!). Gielgud is 60 and his career is flagging. Burton is 39 and hugely successful on the big screen, but wants to prove himself back on the boards where he started with what most actors see as the mountain of early career. His new wife is there to support him. Gielgud’s big idea is to present Hamlet as a final run through, more ordinary clothes than modern dress.

Though he is restrained, at least initially, Gielgud has clear views on how the prince should be played, but Burton has his too, keen to make it his own take on Hamlet. Though respectful of one another, there is tension between these two men from very different worlds, which eventually comes to the surface. There is a pivotal scene where Burton comes to rehearsal inebriated, and the whole cast turn against him. From here the tension is more open and healthier for it. They both open up, Burton showing more of his true self and Gielgud revealing an acerbic wit, both of which fuel the relationship.

There is a substantial amount of Shakespeare’s play interspersed with the rehearsal discussions, in short scenes that count down the days. For a theatre obsessive like me it’s fascinating, though I wonder if others might find it too immersed in its own world. At first the presence of Elizabeth seemed unnecessary, but you soon realise she is in many ways saying things her husband can’t or won’t say. He does eventually talk to Gielgud about his upbringing and this unlocks the role, enabling him to find his Hamlet and satisfy the director at the same time.

When I first saw the casting of the two leads, it was easy to see Mark Gatiss as Gielgud, but I was a bit puzzled by the casting of Johnny Flynn as Burton. Perhaps it was my prejudice as a Welsh miner’s son, wanting the role to be played by one of our own (Michael Sheen?). In the end though they both deliver towering performances of great subtlety, way beyond impersonation, getting a rare, richly deserved spontaneous standing ovation from the NT crowd. There’s luxury casting in support, with Tuppence Middleton’s Liz proving so much more that the supportive wife, Luke Norris as William Redfield (Guildenstern) and Allan Corduner as Hume Cronyn (Polonius).

Though it isn’t referred to in the play, Burton & Peter O’Toole challenged each other to play Hamlet under the direction of the two great Shakespearean interpreters of the day, Olivier and Gielgud. It seems Burton chose well, lauded for his interpretation, part of the longest ever run of a Shakespeare play on Broadway. It also proved key for Gielgud, revitalising his career.

This is a theatrical feast. Great writing by Thorne (who now moves on to Churchill!), impeccable staging from Sam Mendes’ and fine performances, all of which combine to bring this slice of theatrical history alive almost sixty years on.

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