LONDON — Along St. Martin’s Lane, the girls are lining up for their “little touch of Harry in the night.” No, that is not a snarky reference to another case of untoward groping by a member of Parliament.
Harry — his majesty to you — is the title character of “Henry V,” which is enjoying a sold-out run at the Noël Coward Theater through Feb. 15. When that “little touch” line is spoken, by an appropriately awe-struck chorus, Henry is standing upstage center framed by a dazzling canopy of stars against a midnight sky. Since Henry is played by Jude Law, no one is about to question his right to be thus positioned.
Along with David Tennant in “Richard II” and Tom Hiddleston in “Coriolanus,” Law is one of three actors who have recently lent a screen-god glow to William Shakespeare’s portraits of uncommon men. Their presence has made these productions the hardest shows in town to get into, while attracting fresh-faced audience members more typically found at One Direction concerts.
The perception that an idol isn’t really an actor until he’s mastered his Shakespeare has assumed renewed currency in London, recalling the days when young lions such as Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole roared in iambic pentameter at Stratford-upon-Avon. The past decade has seen more marquee Hamlets, including Law and Tennant, than you can shake a skull at. (Up next at Elsinore: Benedict Cumberbatch in the fall.)
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But the current alignment of stars is unusually illuminating. The performances of Law, Tennant and Hiddleston — all credible and compelling — are reminders that, half a millennium after his death, Shakespeare remains the ultimate anatomist of celebrity.
Each of these actors is shining his own natural light, and presumably his own experience, on what Henry calls the “hard condition! twin born with greatness” that is “subject to the breath of every fool.”
Like many a Shakespeare hero, Henry, Richard and Coriolanus are defined by attributes — birth-given status, talent, good old charisma — that lift them high above the crowd. They are, in their way, freaks. And whether it is a matter of perception or reality, they are expected to burn brighter than the rest of us.
That’s what we still ask today of the people who inhabit office, fill movie screens and adorn magazine covers. And to crib from another line by Shakespeare (from “Henry IV,” about our Henry’s dad), uneasy lies the head whose every expression is monitored by others.
It’s nice to think that Law (a longtime favorite of tabloid scrutiny), Tennant (who became famous in England as the lead in television’s “Doctor Who”) and Hiddleston (a star of the “Thor” movie franchise) might uncover a few useful tips for dealing with their high profiles. The rises and falls of their characters are defined by their relationships with their public, or “the wavering commons” as a line from “Richard II” puts it. Fame makes the man in these plays; it can also crush him.
None is crushed more harrowingly than Hiddleston’s Coriolanus, in Josie Rourke’s blood-drenched production at the Donmar Warehouse, running through Feb. 13. Portraying a patrician Roman warrior who is undone by his contempt for what he calls “the mutable, rank-scented meiny,” Hiddleston is a riveting combination of taut sinews and exposed nerves.
Coriolanus is never happier than when he’s doing what earns him glory, which is slaughtering enemies on the battlefield. It’s what follows, back at home, that he can’t deal with. When the curious crowds press in to see their military hero, he explodes in a fury of disgust.
As embodied by Hiddleston, this revulsion presents a painful spectacle, and you want to avert your eyes, except that you can’t. This overmuscled boy in closefitting jeans (in ancient Rome, it seems, a man is measured by the tightness of his pants) just can’t help it. He gives in to unedited impulses like a wound-up, nap-deprived 2-year-old.
Watching Coriolanus lash out at the mob, it’s easy to think of the bad behavior of current combustibles like Shia LaBeouf, who recently vowed to withdraw from public life, and Alec Baldwin. (The on-court eruptions of the tennis stars John McEnroe and, early in his career, Andy Murray also come to mind.)
Rourke’s minimalist-modern production, adorned with graffiti projections that reflect the shifting public temperature, brings a savage fierceness to parallel the depths of its protagonist’s ferocity. Coriolanus is, even more than usual, a social cripple, who becomes graceful only in battle.
With his mother, the glory-hungry Volumnia (a superb Deborah Findlay), he’s an awkward, eager-to-please little boy. With his gorgeous wife, Virgilia (Birgitte Hjort Sorensen), he is merely dutiful.
But in combat with his great adversary, Aufidius (Hadley Fraser), he becomes a fully sexual being, brimming with a sadomasochism that evokes O’Toole’s Lawrence of Arabia.
Unoccupied by fighting, he looks unfulfilled, suggesting a restless flame in search of its natural fuel. That fiery quality sets him apart from others, more to his detriment than advantage.
The light emanated by Tennant in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “Richard II,” which ended its run at the Barbican Center on Jan. 25, was of a different composition but equally isolating. Though wont to compare himself to the sun, he looked more like a wanly glowing moon, awaiting imminent eclipse.
This Richard is pale and attenuated, with long tresses flowing down his back and exquisitely embroidered robes covering a breakable-looking body.
Certainly, he stands out among the beefy military lords who serve him and who look upon their king with increasing disgust as the play continues, like jocks in a gym class who are forced to put up with the sick rich boy.
In this “Richard II,” directed by Gregory Doran and designed with period sumptuousness by Stephen Brimson Lewis, it would seem that fate is determined by body type.
Even outside the extraterrestrial environs of “Doctor Who,” Tennant has always registered as a slightly alien presence, rather like a more rarefied Johnny Depp. This suits the portrayal of a doomed, disastrously sheltered 14th-century monarch.
His Richard is the ultimate example of the grown-up child who was always told he was special. Really special. As in better-than-this-world, avatar-of-God special.
He is fatally out of touch with a realm increasingly dominated by practical politicians like the usurping Bolingbroke (a convincingly rough-and-ready Nigel Lindsay).
The rhythms and pitch of Richard’s flutelike voice are at odds with the way everyone else speaks. No wonder he’s always asking for a mirror to confirm his identity, to make sure he exists. Or that in this version, he looks for love in the person of his boyish cousin. That’s Aumerle (Oliver Rix), who is here presented as Richard’s probable bed mate and, in their final scene, his Judas.
In contrast, Law’s Henry is a highly pragmatic soul, who uses his royal stature and high-voltage charm to ingratiate. Law brings to his portrayal the athletic avidity that characterized his Hamlet for the same director, Michael Grandage. Such extroverted eagerness feels more suitable to Henry than it did to the Prince of Denmark.
Henry, after all, is a former playboy who wants desperately to convince his subjects that he’s ready to be a serious ruler. He also has to sell them on going to war at a moment their country has more than enough problems to deal with at home.
Incandescent with energy and bonhomie, Law turns out to be a supersalesman in this regard. You can understand why Henry’s troops follow him unto the breach, even when they’re overwhelmingly outnumbered by their French opponents.
He’s the sort of king who makes you believe he’s your dear friend as well as comrade in arms, even if you’re just a foot soldier.
But while Henry may have the common touch that Richard and Coriolanus so disastrously lack, Grandage’s production makes it clear that even golden boys eventually come to dust. This version ends with Henry frozen in triumphant tableau with his bride-to-be, the French Princess Katharine (an enchanting Jessie Buckley).
But as the Chorus (played as a backpack-toting student type by Ashley Zhangazha) speaks his final lines, prophesying grimmer twists in English history to come, the effulgence in which the scene has been bathed fades to gray.
I was reminded of a strikingly similar moment from the “Richard II” I’d seen the night before, in which the title character was allowed one last dazzling moment of regal radiance.
The stage was so brightly lighted that then your instinct was to shade your eyes. And it lasted for just a few seconds. After that, Richard was stripped of his robes, his scepter, his very identity. No star, it seems, burns forever.