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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Will they, won't they: Freya’s ambivalent relationship with plot

Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed in Anthony Quinn’s Freya.

Freya is a portrait of a young woman in her time (post-Second World War through to the 1950s), place (London and Oxford) and social class (upper middle). Her father is an artist, Stephen Wyley, one of the principal characters in Anthony Quinn’s last novel, Curtain Call, which was set in 1936. We meet Freya on VE Day, assessing her own reflection: dressed in her Wren uniform, leggy, a little flat-chested, hollow-cheeked, with a “wilful” set to her mouth. And even though her consciousness is the constant centre of this novel, the feeling that we are standing outside her and looking in is never quite shaken. Quinn invests intensively in the details of the character’s life – the food and drink, the brand names and the fabrics, the music and the books around her – but he can’t always make her behave plausibly in the service of the story.

In fact, the novel has an altogether ambivalent relationship with plot. For the first two-thirds of the book there’s not that much of it. Freya is one of those young women for whom peacetime brought a tedious reversion to the mean expectations for her sex. When she goes up to Oxford, she realises that, despite her accomplishments in the navy, “she was just a skirt with a library book”. Like the heroine, the narrative feels becalmed and slightly wrong-footed. Quinn makes heavy use of elision – telling us that something is about to happen and then jumping to the aftermath – which would be an effective way to suggest Freya’s frustration, if it weren’t so schematic.

Granted, it’s preferable to dodge the obvious than to have it hammered home, but at times Quinn can be remarkably unsubtle. When a character mentions a fictional writer, he glosses this immediately afterwards, explaining: “He had named a famous man of letters from the early part of the century.” Presumably this clunking line has been inserted for fear that we readers won’t be able to draw the necessary conclusions for ourselves, but it’s superfluous and it jars. Quinn also has his characters make self-conscious asides about literature. Arch observations such as “The writer should perform a kind of disappearing act” and “It’s unfathomable to me how someone who’s read Middlemarch could behave this way” make me wonder whether students of physics might not have more intriguing inner lives than those studying English literature.

And then there is Freya’s sexuality, which is set up as the animating mystery of the novel, but is laid out quite clearly before we’re a dozen pages in. She meets Nancy Holdaway during the VE celebrations and the attraction is instant, though also unspeakable (a critical plot point hinges on the repression of homosexuality in 1950s Britain). The will-they-won’t-they dance extends through the book, but it’s hard going waiting for the characters to acknow­ledge something that is perfectly obvious to the reader for several hundred pages. It’s not as if Freya is a fretful naif, either. She takes sexual opportunity at an easy clip, and we learn later that she had flirtations with women during the war. Why become coy in this one instance?

Nor is she otherwise a reserved or taciturn character. Forging a career in journalism as a woman demands that she battle at every step, whether she would like to or not. “But I don’t want to fight,” she says, later on in the narrative, “I only want to be given the same.” However, she rarely backs away from confrontation. At times her tenacity is inexplicable. In one scene, she is about to pull off a decisive bargain with a figure from the underworld when she defies the middleman’s warnings and launches into a denunciation of her criminal companion’s morals, inevitably trashing the deal. It’s hard to swallow, and makes it harder still to imagine her keeping her counsel about the great love of her life.

When the plot at last springs to life, in the final third, there is almost too much to get through. Quinn introduces several new characters and a whole mystery element, all in the last 150 pages, with the romance still to be resolved besides. After the languorous pace so far, it’s an abrupt and not quite successful switch. Quinn hasn’t got the Sarah Waters trick of mixing sexual repression with a potboiling historical plot, nor Waters’s gift for scenes of disarming literary filth. (Freya announcing that “she finger-fucked me till I came” is unlikely to join ­Fingersmith’s “You pearl!” in the fantasy lives of the bookish.) Freya is a novel about intimacy and honesty, where telling the truth is paramount; but it doesn’t seem to know its own heroine well enough to bring us truly close to her.

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism