Tuppence Middleton tells Chris Evans about starring as Elizabeth Taylor in 'really special' new play, The Motive and the Cue

Virgin Radio

4 May 2023, 10:21

Tuppence Middleton at Virgin Radio.

Tuppence Middleton joined the Chris Evans Breakfast Show with cinch to talk about taking to the stage as the iconic Elizabeth Taylor.

The Motive and the Cue - which is currently playing at the National Theatre in London - was written by BAFTA-winning Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) and is directed by Oscar winner Sam Mendes (American Beauty, Skyfall). Tuppence told Chris: “It's about the 1964 production of Hamlet, when John Gielgud directed Richard Burton, who was, at the time, one of the biggest stars on the planet, and had just married Elizabeth Taylor.”

The plot of the new play sees Burton set to take on the title role in an experimental new production of Hamlet under Gielgud’s direction. But as rehearsals progress, two ages of theatre collide and the collaboration between actor and director soon threatens to unravel. “It was so fraught, and it was kind of a clash of the titans, these huge theatrical personalities who couldn't really find their rhythm together at first, and then eventually came together and created something quite special,” Tuppence explained.

She added that the play became “a huge success for Richard Burton. But the process of getting there was very tumultuous.”

The Downton Abbey star appears alongside Johnny Flynn as Burton, Mark Gatiss as Gielgud and Janie Dee as Eileen Herlie. She said: “There's so many potential ego clashes in the characters of our play. And so it's interesting to watch those people navigate their way around each other. And Elizabeth is probably the most famous actress in the world at the time, and kind of gave up multiple offers in order to be on Broadway and support Richard while he did Hamlet, after they just got married the first time. So yeah, it was a big sacrifice for her.”

She added: “They were full throttle all the time. When they first met on the set of Cleopatra, I think Elizabeth was 29 and she already had three kids and four husbands. They crammed so much into their lives. And she was raised by the studio system in Hollywood, so your whole personality and your identity is based around that industry.

“It's so hard to imagine now for us, as we have such access to celebrities’ private lives, they were really the first kind of big celebrity couple and the word paparazzi was coined for them, apparently.” 

The play is inspired by two books about the production, and its title is a direct quote from one of Hamlet’s speeches (What would he do, had he the motive and the cue for passion that I have?). “One of the challenges for all of us, and I suppose in particular, Johnny, Mark and I… it was it's kind of finding that balance of not just doing an impression and doing our version of what this character was like,” Tuppence said. “You have access to so much source material on them, and everyone has their version of who they think Elizabeth Taylor is. So in the end, you could disappoint everyone or you can thrill everyone.”

It seems that the latter is true, as the Black Mirror and Fisherman’s Friends actor said: “We're just hit with this wall of love every time we go out for the curtain call. I think people are really responding to it. The play is so much about why we make theatre, why we make art, why we still go and sit in a room with 1000 other people and watch theatre. 

“It will really appeal to people who love that era, love the theatre. But also, I think, even if you don't know anything about these characters, it's just really thrilling to watch the process of how you make a play, you're kind of let behind the scenes, you know, you get to see that process, which people don't often get to see. 

“I think it's a really special play. And I feel very lucky to be part of it.”

She added: “I guess it's so sort of meta, making a play about a play at, but the nice thing is, we haven't had the kind of very difficult fraught process that they had.” 

The Motive And The Cue continues at The National Theatre until 15th July. Tickets are available now at nationaltheatre.org.uk.

For more great interviews listen to  The Chris Evans Breakfast Show with cinch weekdays from 6:30am on Virgin Radio, or catch up on-demand here.