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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Robert Harris: Some of our great political leaders have crossed the floor. But it takes courage

Jeremy Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for – so progressive politicians need to find new ways to take the fight to the Tories.

The big picture in recent years has been the collapse of the left-wing project across the world. But in Britain, in particular, there are institutional reasons. I can’t quite understand how the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party can sit there day after day, month after month, year after year, knowing that they’re simply heading towards a kind of mincing machine at the next election. It’s like waiting in a prison room, waiting to be taken out and shot one by one, when there are enough of you to overpower the guards.

If you look back over British political history, some of the great political leaders have crossed the floor: Gladstone, Joseph Chamberlain, Churchill – and Jenkins, Owen, Rodgers and Williams in 1981. Whether these people turn out to be right or wrong – and mostly they turn out to be right – there’s a certain courage in the action they took. There seems to be no one with the big vision to do anything comparable in the Labour Party.

It’s not fashionable on the left to say this, but individuals are hugely important. I think if there had been a canny and effective leader in place of Jeremy Corbyn we may well not have had Brexit. But as it is, Labour has provided no rallying point for the nearly half the nation that doesn’t want the course the country is set on, and that is such a colossal failure of leadership that I think history will judge the PLP extremely harshly.

The New Labour project was based on a kind of Crossmanite view that through economic growth you would fund ever-improving social services for the entire country. That worked very well until we had the crash, when the engine broke down. Suddenly there was a wilderness in the leadership of the Labour Party. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats had imploded with their alliance with the Tories. There was no opposition.

Our familiar view of the Labour Party is over. That is not coming back. Scotland is not going to be recaptured. So there can never be a Labour government of the sort we’ve seen in the past. One just has to adjust to that. What I would have liked to have seen is some grouping within Labour in parliament, whether around the Co-operative Party or whatever, that would have been able to take the fight to the Tories. But who would lead such a group? We don’t have a Jenkins or an Owen. There doesn’t seem to be anyone of comparable stature.

We all thought that Europe would smash the Tories but actually Europe has smashed Labour. There has obviously been some sort of fracture between the white-collar workers and intellectuals – that Webb, LSE, New Statesman tradition – and a large section of the working class, particularly in the Midlands, the north and Scotland. It’s an alliance that may be very hard to put back together.

Corbyn is the very opposite of the man the times call for. They call for a politician who can master a brief who is also nimble on his feet: but that is the sort of figure the Corbynites revile. You simply can’t have a leader who doesn’t notice when the Tories abandon a manifesto pledge on tax and can’t ask a couple of questions with a quarter of an hour’s notice. The Tories haven’t really gone to town on him but once they get back on to the IRA support and the views expressed in the past, Labour could easily drop to about 150 seats and we could be looking at a 1931-style wipeout.

The fact is that the extra-parliamentary route is a myth. Brexit is being pushed through in parliament; the battle is there and in the courts, not with rallies. You can have a million people at a rally: it’s not going to alter anything at all. It seems as if there has been a coup d’état and a minority view has suddenly taken control, and, in alliance with the right-wing press, is denouncing anyone who opposes it as an enemy of democracy. It requires a really articulate leadership to fight this and that’s what we’ve not got.

The only possibility is a progressive alliance. These are not great days for the progressives, but even still, they make up a good third of the electorate, with the rest to play for. 

If there was an election tomorrow I’d vote for the Liberal Democrats, and I think an awful lot of Labour people would do the same. The Lib Dems offer a simple, unequivocal slogan. You would have thought the one thing John McDonnell and co would have learned from Trotsky and Lenin – with his “Peace, land, bread” – is that you offer a simple slogan. Who knows what Labour’s position is? It’s just a sort of agonised twist in the wind. 

Robert Harris’s latest novel is “Conclave” (Arrow)
As told to Tom Gatti

This article first appeared in the 30 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Wanted: an opposition