Recently, a trio of screen stars has taken to the London stage to portray three of Shakepeare’s greatest characters – David Tennant (“Dr. Who”), Richard II; Jude Law, Henry V; and Tom Hiddleston (“Thor”), Coriolanus. Together they offer a kind of round robin of Shakespearean performance. On PBS, Tennant was a febrile Hamlet, a role that was played with lucent rationality on Broadway by Law, whose Henry V follows hard upon Hiddleston’s charismatic interpretation in PBS’ “The Hollow Crown.”
The three also offer lessons in leadership undone at a time in our history when the systemic failure of Alexandrian leadership – leadership from the front – continues to haunt us. What, for example, would the Bard make of New Jersey Gov. Chris Chrisite? Would he cast him as his blustery Roman general Coriolanus, a man whose skills are undermined – no, doomed – by his own arrogance and blindness to the will of the people?
Much has been made about Coriolanus’ and Richard’s inability to read the people, but what is just as important is that they fail to read their people in vastly different ways.
Richard – all head, little physicality and no heart – is the kind of ruler who thinks, at first at least, that all you need is a title and a pedigree. He doesn’t grasp that without muscle and at least the illusion of the common touch, a king has nothing. But the lower Richard sinks, the more poetic, insightful and sympathetic he becomes: That’s Shakespeare’s genius. Tennant, who has an attenuated appearance and brought a feverish intensity to Hamlet, would seem a perfect choice for Richard.
Coriolanus has plenty of muscle – and sinew and viscera and blood. Unlike Richard, he’s all action and little reflection so he fails to understand that action isn’t enough. Eventually, the mob tires of every leader, no matter how dynamic. In politics, timing is everything. Coriolanus overstays his welcome, is rejected and in rejecting the people who rejected him, betrays those he once fought to protect, thereby sealing his own fate. (Gee, sound familiar?)
At BAM a few years back, I saw Coriolanus played by Ralph Fiennes, who would later direct himself in the role on film. I thought Fiennes, who played Richard II in repertory with Coriolanus at BAM, was a brilliant Richard but too ascetic-looking for Coriolanus. The role wants a certain animal heft, a Russell Crowe or a Richard Burton. Hiddleston is also cut from Fiennes’ ascetic cloth. But he was a dashing Prince Hal turned Henry V so it would be interesting to see what he makes of Coriolanus.
Henry – the playboy who becomes a paragon – is the only one of the three to strike the right balance. He’s a man of thought and action, with the people but not of them. He has learned that a king must be alone. The real Henry – who was a pawn in the rivalry between Richard II, his cousin, and the usurping Henry IV, his father – must’ve learned a lot about how not to be a king as well. Clearly, he absorbed the lessons for he became England’s greatest warrior king.
But like Alexander the Great – to whom the Bard compares him – he died young and his empire fell apart.
Having conquered much, Henry was conquered by time – the ultimate ruler of us all.