As the RSC cycle of Shakespeare's Histories arrives at London’s Barbican Theatre, Alex Hassell appears first as Hal in Henry IV Pts 1 & 2, before maturing into the series' Henry V.
35 years old and with enviably chiselled features, whilst not yet a household name, Hassell is commanding increasing respect. It was only last month that he achieved a podium finish as a Best Supporting Performance nominee in the 2015 UK Theatre awards for his portrayal of Biff in the RSC's acclaimed revival of Death Of A Salesman.
Shortly before Henry V opened, I interviewed Alex at the RSC’s London rehearsal rooms, to learn a little more about this impressive young performer and to talk about his Hal, Henry and Biff.
|Alex Hassell as Hal in Henry IV Pt ii
Jonathan: Tell me about the career journey that has brought you to the RSC
Alex: I grew up in Essex. When I was 12, I went to see a musical called The Rock Nativity and just instantly knew that I wanted to be an actor.
Near where I lived there was just musicals. There weren't many straight plays, so I grew up just spending every spare moment dancing lessons and singing lessons and all of that. Dozens of musicals and then went to the Junior Guildhall School of Music and Drama on Saturdays and started to get into Shakespeare and was Hamlet at school when I was about seventeen and where I had a brilliant English teacher, Mrs Stroud, who really inspired the whole class.
From there I went to train at the Central School of Speech and Drama and after a while I was lucky enough to end up at the Globe where I played in Mark Rylance’s last season. That was a massive, massive deal for me. It led to Tim Carroll and myself setting up The Factory Theatre Company in 2006 which presents an alternative take on Shakespeare. Our work was well received with a strong following – and that was where I was ultimately noticed by The RSC.
Jonathan: The transition from Prince Hal in the Henry IV plays, to King Henry V is rarely performed by the same actor these days. What are your observations on accomplishing this development?
Alex: Of course it has been done before – though when we get to the Barbican and you can see Richard II, Henry IV i & ii and Henry V in like three or four days. I don't know if they’ve necessarily done that.
To be honest I would find it really strange, the notion of just playing Henry V because there's so much that is to do with it being the guy that was just Hal in Henry IV i & ii becoming Henry V. That to me seems massively what the play is about, or what his journey is about anyway.
It's very, fascinating, because the idea, I believe, that Hal was a wayward youth is Shakespeare's invention. Also, the speech at the beginning of Henry IV pt i about, "I know you all, and will awhile uphold The unyoked humour of your idleness ... " About the idea that he's biding his time or whatever, or he's undercover, or something like that and that he's then going to amaze everyone at a later date when he turns it all around. That where that is paying off in the course of the three plays and where that becomes true, if it wasn't true in the first place, I think is very interesting.
I think if you don't do both parts of Henry IV then Hal's relationship to God is different, Hal's relationship with going to France would be is different, because there are different motives suggested for going to France and for me it seems very useful to remember that as Henry V, my father's dying wishes were that I go to France and that I galvanize the kingdom behind me through that action.
Having Hal be the same person shows his change. He develops and grows as a person, but it's not like it's a different person. It's the same person, so his vulnerability and frailty and self-doubt and at times, I think, self-loathing, fear and dissatisfaction and not wanting to be there, not wanting to be in that role is all still in there somewhere, but he cannot allow it to overwhelm him.
Jonathan: How do you see that Henry V speaks to Britain today from the perspectives of royalty, monarchy and conflict?
Alex: I think that we've discovered looking through it that it's a play about the cost of war. I don't think it's pro-war. I think in some areas the characters are pro-war and in some areas the characters are anti-war and the same characters can be both.
I don't think the play comes down either way, but I think it's exploring the complexities of war and that what it takes to lead people to war. What it costs you and costs them and why people might go to war. The differing reasons that people might go to war and how maybe God and things like that can be appropriated into those missions. I think it asks more questions than it answers, so I don't think it speaks to us these days in terms of saying, "This is what we are saying. This is what the play is saying about war."
Or take the Governor of Harfleur, for example and what would you do if a king was saying this to you and was threatening to kill and rape your women? What would you do? Would you give up or not? I think that's what the play is asking of us and I think that is an incredibly universal and a timeless set of questions really. I'm really pleased that we're not setting it in a particular time really, or not applying it to a certain war. In fact, we're unusual as a production of Henry V that there's not a war that we are currently fighting that this would be a mirror to, which I think is good.
Jonathan: You've performed with Sir Antony Sher a great deal now. Can you describe working with him?
Alex: He's an amazing actor, obviously. Incredibly detailed and his work, his dedication and the sort of hours he puts in and the focus he has on every tiny little detail is really very impressive. He sort of carves out a kind of astonishing statue. He essentially starts with a big block and carves out these tiny, tiny little details so by the end you see this full picture. I think he wants to breathe life into that picture every time, but not deviate too much from it because it's a full, fully realized and extremely well put together and well crafted portrait of a person, whereas I am much more chaotic! It was very exciting for me to be riffing with someone of Tony's ability and quality obviously, but I think it was exciting for him too, to every now and then go, "Oh, I'm out of my comfort zone. I don't know what happens if we do this. I don't know where we end up." It's exciting to throw one another at each other's mercy, especially in Death of a Salesman, which is immensely emotionally fraught and connected.
|Antony Sher as Willy Loman (l) w Hassell as Biff
Jonathan: And a complete change of tack for you with your portrayal of Biff in Death of a Salesman, again opposite Sher as Willy Loman. Tell me about taking that 1940’s character into 2015 and what do you think he’s saying?
Alex: I guess, I don't know about my take on Biff, but I guess the play's take on Biff is, which for an actor is a very useful thing to think about, is to just attempt to be okay with who you are. To do the old AA thing, or whatever. “Change what you think you can change and be okay with the things that you can't change.” If only Willie had learned to do that. Biff I think is trying to do that. I think that is Biff's desire in the play, really, is to find out who he is and try and be okay with who he is. It becomes so moving. It is truly one of the best plays ever written.
Why I want to be an actor is to be given the privilege to get up in front of people and attempt to express and embody the things that they are embarrassed about themselves to have known to other people.
There were a number of times when I would come out of the stage door and young people would want me to hold them because they had felt Biff had represented them and would be crying and would ask me to talk to them about it, which was astonishing really.
Some young people feel and I completely understand, feel lost and feel that they can't live up to the pressure that the world, or their parents, or themselves are putting onto them. I feel that myself as an actor. I put myself under an enormous pressure as an actor and I can fail my own idea of what I think I should be very frequently. It was interesting. I can understand what they're saying.
And then there would be times when we would come out and there would be older men that might have wanted to say something but couldn’t speak because they were so moved. Sometimes they might just say something like, "He was just like someone I know." That was all they'd say.
Lots of people have lots of ways into that play. If you are someone struggling to live up to an idea of yourself. If you are a maligned younger sibling, or an older sibling, or whatever. If you're a partner who's trying to keep the family together despite it spiraling out of control.If you're a next door neighbor or a friend who knows people you don't know how to help, but you can see that something ... If you began to unpick them they would crumble, so what do you do? You just stand by in horror and see it happen. Yes, I feel very moved by being given the opportunity to attempt to live up to that play and embody that play for audiences because it has such power.
I feel very profoundly proud to have been part of something seemed to have the capacity to move people in the way that it did.
Jonathan: And the future. ?
Alex: Ah… of course I would love to play Hamlet in a production with stuff!
It's interesting. I'm a lot older now, and actually my dad has died since I last did it at The Factory, and not that I have a desire to use that or anything like that, but it would be very interesting to have that in my life experience now if that were ever to come up again.
I can be in the bath and suddenly realize that I'm going over the lines of, just sort of exploring them. Hamlet is a play that constantly comes back. You can't ever get it all. You can't ever work it out and pin it all down, and that's what's so amazing about it.
Jonathan: What was your take as someone who today is leading an RSC company in one of Shakespeare's major plays, on the recent publicity that surrounded the Cumberbatch Hamlet?
Alex: I think any hype about theatre is probably a good thing though I do think the critics shouldn't have gone in before they were supposed to.
I would love to be in Benedict Cumberbatch's position and I hope to be one day, and I'm still striving to do so, but there's something I find pleasurable in no one knowing who I am…
Jonathan: Not exactly no one….
Alex: What it feels like at the moment is that I'll go and play Henry V and I know that there are a certain number of the audience that will have seen the other things that I’ve done and are there, hopefully, because they're excited of the notion of me playing Henry V, and that's great. But I know that I've got to this position because Greg Doran thinks I'm good enough to be there.
And that’s good enough for me.
And that’s good enough for me.