We three kings: David Tennant, Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston take on Shakespeare

This winter, three very different actors star in three very different plays - Richard II, Henry V and Coriolanus. But who was best?

By happy coincidence (well, not quite – more on that later), the three big Shakespeare productions showing in London this winter all explore the same subject: leadership. At the Noël Coward Theatre, Jude Law is Henry V – dashing, with a hint of darkness; in the vast expanse of the Barbican, David Tennant is a fey, fragile Richard II; while at the tiny Donmar Warehouse, Tom Hiddleston’s Cori­olanus is too unyielding to turn from soldier to politician.

All three are fine stage actors but they are also “stars”: the A-lister, the telly favourite and the young pretender, fresh from playing Loki in the Avengers film. (It is entirely unsurprising, although still exciting, that Benedict Cumberbatch will be giving us his Hamlet in 2014.) This new “golden age” of Shakespeare is also a golden age of thirty­something and early fortysomething actors “doing a hero” alongside their more commercial work, in a kind of mid-career seriousness test.

Of the trio, Tennant has what seems like the most difficult job: Richard II is a fatally weak figurehead, and after John of Gaunt’s famous speech – “this precious stone set in a silver sea . . . is now leased out, I die pronouncing it, like to a tenement or pelting farm” – the audience is likely to agree with his cousin Bolingbroke that it is in the best interests of the realm for the king to go.

How do you create sympathy for a character such as this, one who would call his dying uncle “a lunatic lean-witted fool” to his face? One who responds to his offstage death with this brusqueness:

The ripest fruit first falls, and so doth he;

His time is spent, our pilgrimage must be.

So much for that. Now for our

Irish wars . . .

Tennant plays this casual cruelty like a spoiled child – reminding us that being a king is very like being a toddler and it’s not good for anyone never to be told “no”.

The costume design helps, too, by creating a feeling that Richard’s character is out of place in his own time: this spoiled child lives in a world of tough men. Nigel Lindsay’s bullet-headed Bolingbroke is – like almost all the other male characters – clad in chain mail, while Tennant wafts round the stage in a series of flowing gowns, waving his long arms expressively and wearing elbow-length hair extensions that look like they were harvested from Neil in The Young Ones.

After Bolingbroke takes his crown, Richard achieves a different type of nobility in accepting his fate, and Tennant does this exquisitely. The metaphorical wobbly lip has always been his strength: from Blackpool to Doctor Who to Recovery, he’s probably made British television viewers cry more than any other actor working today.

Jude Law, by contrast, has a much more straightforward job. The roistering Prince Hal of Henry IV Parts I and II has already faded into memory, and Falstaff’s offstage death will make little sense to the 30 per cent of ticket buyers whom the director, Michael Grand­age, claims are first-timers to the theatre. (Would it be a heresy too far to suggest that the scene be shaved when the play is done as a stand-alone piece?)

There’s nothing wrong with this production: the whitewashed set is elegant, the costumes gesture to the period without looking ridiculous to modern eyes (Law’s slim-fit trousers have just a whisper of codpiece about them). The performances are uniformly well-judged, with Ron Cook’s swaggering Pistol and Jessie Buckley’s unexpectedly funny Katherine particular highlights.

And yet: it all left me strangely cold. If Tennant’s Richard II is a man out of his time, then perhaps Henry V is a man out of ours. There is no discussion about why the king, already ruler of one country, is desperate to acquire another. (Also, the French king seems like a decent sort, albeit with a striking resemblance to Top Gear’s James May.)

So, why is King Henry leading thousands of men to risk their lives so that he can move his tennis court a few miles closer to Paris? It’s all founded on an unquestioning patriotism that might seem quaint to an audience that remembers the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan (or even Nicholas Hytner’s 2003 National Theatre production of the play, which referenced them explicitly). In the end, my sympathies are more with the “cowardly” Pistol and his friends, grumbling their way over to France and hoping only to do some light looting and stay out of trouble.

Tom Hiddleston’s Coriolanus prefers to be in the thick of it. Early on, he acquires his name by clambering up a ladder centre stage to storm the gates of Corioles. His soldiers mourn his noble folly in taking on a whole town on his own; midway through their eulogies, he emerges, smeared in blood and undeniably victorious. (This later allows him to take a shower on stage, causing much excited giggling from the row behind me. Your correspondent is A Serious Critic, however, and definitely did not fan herself with her programme.)

The tragedy of Caius Martius Coriolanus – and this play is a tragedy, not a history – is that the same stubborn pride that makes him a war hero prevents him from succeeding as a politician. Back in Rome, he cannot win over the plebs, nor the tribunes who represent them, and ends up cast out of the city as a traitor. So, he teams up with his old enemies, the Volsci, who agree to follow Coriolanus because their commander, Aufidius, has been having sexy dreams about him – and frankly who can blame him:

I have nightly since
Dreamt of encounters ’twixt thyself and me;                                                                          
We have been down together in my sleep,
Unbuckling helms, fisting each
other’s throat . . .

Ahem. You get the idea.

Unfortunately for Coriolanus, when he is poised at the gates of Rome, a visit from his mother, wife and son convinces him not to sack the city. The Volsci are unimpressed with this newfound softness and in an obscene echo of the shower scene, they hang him from his feet on a meat hook in the centre of the stage and slit his stomach open. He drips blood, gently twirling as rose petals fall from the ceiling.

It’s my guess that very few theatregoers (even ones as luvvie-loving as the Donmar crowd, who seemed to be very excited about “the woman from Borgen” being in it) will be familiar with the story of Coriolanus, and that has the happy effect of making the play more enjoyable, not less. Forced to concentrate on the verse to follow the plot, you find that the language shines. Purists may not like all the bells and whistles, but none seemed gratuitous – except, perhaps, the endless moving of chairs around the stage, which made it feel occasionally like a polka in Ikea.

Talking of the stage, that white square should get its own credit in the programme: at various points it was smeared with graffiti, showered with fireworks, covered in blood, water and petals. Hiddleston and Hadley Fraser’s Aufidius had a sword fight that degenerated into grisly-looking hand-to-hand combat, all thumbs and windpipes. (“There was a lot of proper acting,” said my boyfriend approvingly on the way home. “They were really out of breath.”)

All three of these plays are sold out, or close to it, for their full runs; and deservedly so. We are at a lucky moment when there are actors around who can charm us as a floppy-haired Timelord or a helmet-helmed Norse god and also do justice to 16th-century verse. But if you can beg, borrow or plunder a ticket to one of these plays, let it be Coriolanus. The weak leader and the strong one are interesting in their own ways; but it is the leader who is both, each at the wrong moment, who seems the most real.

Tom Hiddleston in Coriolanus.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 December 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Triple Issue

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I worked as a teacher – so I can tell you how regressive grammar schools are

The grammars and "comprehensives" of Kent make for an unequal system. So why does Theresa May consider the county a model for the future?

In 1959 my parents moved me from a Roman Catholic primary school to the junior branch of King Henry VIII, Coventry’s most high-profile grammar. The head teacher berated my mother for betraying the one true faith, but although she was born in Galway, my mum was as relaxed about her religion as she was about her native roots. Any strong feelings about the English Reformation had disappeared around the same time as her Irish accent. Her voice gave no clue to where she was from and – as a result of a wartime commission – the same was true of my father. Together, Mrs and Mr Smith embodied postwar Britain’s first-generation upwardly mobile middle class.

Their aspiration and ambition were so strong that my mother saw no problem in paying for me to attend a Protestant school. Why, you may ask, did my dad, a middle manager and by no means well off, agree to pay the fees? Quite simply, my parents were keen that I pass the eleven-plus.

King Henry VIII School benefited from the direct grant scheme, introduced after the Education Act 1944. In Coventry, the two direct grant schools were centuries old and were paid a fee by the government to educate the fifth or so of boys who passed the eleven-plus. When secondary education in Coventry became comprehensive in the mid-1970s, King Henry VIII went fully independent; today, it charges fees of more than £10,000 per year.

A few years ago, I returned to my old school for a memorial service. As I left, I saw a small group of smartly dressed men in their late seventies. They had strong Coventry accents and intended to “go down the club” after the service. It occurred to me that they represented the small number of working-class lads who, in the years immediately after the Second World War, were lucky enough to pass the eleven-plus and (no doubt with their parents making huge sacrifices) attend “the grammar”. But by the time I moved up to King Henry VIII’s senior school in 1963 there appeared to be no one in my A-stream class from a working-class background.

From the early 1950s, many of the newly affluent middle classes used their financial power to give their children an advantage in terms of selection. My parents paid for a privileged education that placed top importance on preparation for the eleven-plus. In my class, only one boy failed the life-determining test. Today, no less than 13 per cent of entrants to the 163 grammar schools still in the state system are privately educated. No wonder preparatory schools have responded enthusiastically to Theresa May’s plans to reverse the educational orthodoxy of the past five decades.

Nowhere has the rebranding of secondary moderns as “comprehensives” been more shameless than in Kent, where the Conservative-controlled council has zealously protected educational selection. Each secondary modern in east Kent, where I taught in the 1970s, has since been named and renamed in a fruitless attempt to convince students that failing to secure a place at grammar school makes no difference to their educational experience and prospects. That is a hard message to sell to the two-thirds of ten-year-olds who fail the Kent test.

Investment and academy status have transformed the teaching environment, which a generation ago was disgraceful (I recall the lower school of a secondary modern in Canterbury as almost literally Edwardian). Ofsted inspections confirm that teachers in non-grammar schools do an amazing job, against all the odds. Nevertheless, selection reinforces social deprivation and limited aspiration in the poorest parts of the south-east of England, notably Thanet and the north Kent coastline.

A third of children in Thanet live in poverty. According to local sources (including a cross-party report of Kent councillors in 2014), disadvantaged children make up less than 9 per cent of pupils in grammar schools but 30 per cent at secondary moderns. University admissions tutors confirm the low number of applications from areas such as Thanet relative to the UK average. Though many of Kent’s secondary moderns exceed expectations, the county has the most underperforming schools in the UK.

When I began my teaching career, I was appallingly ignorant of the harsh realities of a secondary education for children who are told at the age of 11 that they are failures. Spending the years from seven to 17 at King Henry VIII School had cocooned me. More than 40 years later, I can see how little has changed in Kent – and yet, perversely, the Prime Minister perceives the county’s education system as a model for the future.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times