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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser