Combining cunning and raw violence: Jude Law as Henry V at the Noel Coward Theatre
It was a premier cru year for Shakespeare, benefiting from a dramatic arms race luring bankable stars to the big parts. A grand old director whispered to me as David Tennant limbered up for Richard II at Stratford, "Any director worth his salt can make a telly star do decent Shakespeare — once." Pulling it off beyond that is the real skill, given the limitations of actors accustomed to minute twitches of facial expressions, rather than body movement, verse-speaking and the nimble panoply of skills old Will demands.
Tennant and Jude Law, both Hamlets of yore, risked second helpings of the Bard, with Tennant's Richard II transferring to the cavernous Barbican stage at the end of 2013, and the feline Law taking on Henry V at the Noël Coward Theatre. Tennant's Richard has been notable mainly for its quirks — the hair! The nail polish! — but the Barbican's reprise gives him a chance to settle the flightier elements of Greg Doran's production and find the uneasy heart of a fidgety king.
He has some very stiff competition in the star contest from Law's Henry, the last of Michael Grandage's productions in his foray into the West End. Four years ago, Law's Hamlet struck me as bravely effortful but devoid of the heart and devastating sadness of the Prince. As a young king seething with bellicose ambition, manipulative yet uncertain, he nails his new part with conviction. Whether he's rallying the troops with a blast of convenient patriotism on the eve of Agincourt or wooing Princess Katherine (a luminous Jessie Buckley) with the practised ease of a chap who has grown used to getting his way, Law is riveting.
Although, not to put too fine a point on it, the darling of the Primrose Hill Set is knocking on a bit for the role, Law has the physicality of a king who knows his power derives from his deeds on the battlefield and combines cunning and raw violence to take the laurels. He's an actor who, in his screen life is at his best playing dubious characters (Alfie, Dickie Greenleaf) and he brings the same compulsive, rather scary quality to his Henry — with enough brio and smiting swordsmanship to keep our admiration, even as we see through the ruses of royalty.
Grandage's production is cool and unfussy, with some extravagantly lovely costumes (Henry, we gather, was not a monarch for the austerity era). Only one character — Ashley Zhangazha's Chorus — sports a union jack T-shirt, a deft modern touch which still allows the mood and modes of the medieval world to prevail. On this fine showing Grandage and Law (a combo which sounds like a punitive legal firm) make a very convincing stage partnership.
Meanwhile in other kingly news, Sir Nicholas Hytner departed the National with a final flourish of an Othello. Adrian Lester as the envy-infected Moor and Rory Kinnear as his bluff mate Iago were a double-act damned to cling to one another and the needy relationship was finely wrought. Kinnear's Hamlet has established him as one of the more natural of verse speakers and here he mixed a twang of Estuary with a clear poetic awareness of the words.
Hytner's version is set in a contemporary army base in Cyprus, a pressure-cooker of martial intent without the release of actual fighting (the war in Othello having been postponed, as they say on the Tube, "due to adverse weather conditions").
Directors tend to apply war parallels with a trowel, but this production captured the tension and masculine insecurities of the soldiering breed without overdoing the modern angst. The scene in which Iago drives the Moor to vomit in fear and aggression at Desdemona's rumoured infidelity was one of the most chilling of the year — enough to make you want to shout out and warn Othello.