The Royal Shakespeare Company’s Gregory Doran completes his ambitious ‘King and Country’ tetralogy with rising star Alex Hassell in the title role of Henry V

[Images by Keith Pattison for the RSC]

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With the 600th anniversary of Agincourt on 25 October, Doran’s production of Henry V at Stratford-upon-Avon’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre is a standout tribute to both Shakespeare and the battle that helped define British history.

Returning to the role he so effortlessly made his own (opposite Antony Sher’s Falstaff) in Henry IV Parts 1 and 2, Alex Hassell is undoubtedly the star of the show.

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By the time he’s reciting the legendary St Crispin’s Day speech, Hassell deploys Shakespeare’s words so powerfully that the audience is ready to leap up and follow him into battle.

Hassell also brings some comedy to role of the English king who has left his notoriously misspent youth behind him.

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A particular highlight is the meeting of Henry and the French princess, Katherine, played by Jennifer Kirby. Hassell plays the scene as a Hugh Grant-type character as he petitions his prospective wife to love him whilst overcoming a language barrier.

Alex Hassell is definitely an actor to keep a close eye on as he progresses through his Shakespearean career.

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Other performances that stand out include Oliver Ford Davies as the cardigan-wearing Chorus, Antony Byrne as the fiery Pistol and Jane Lapotaire as Queen Isobel.

Despite Lapotaire only appearing in Act V, her presence is spellbinding and it’s a pleasure to witness her commanding the stage.

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The entire production was captivating from start to finish, and certainly a strong ending to the RSC’s run of history plays over the last couple of years.

Henry V will transfer to London’s Barbican Theatre in November before moving the New York in April 2016.

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Go here to book tickets for Henry V at the Barbican.

The Prince and the Passion: in this exclusive interview, actor Matthew Amendt talks about playing Prince Hal in Washington DC with the Shakespeare Theatre Company

Matthew Amendt displays a unique passion when talking about his performance as Prince Hal in the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s recent dual presentation of Henry IV, Part 1 and Henry IV, Part 2, his longstanding relationship with Prince Hal and Shakespeare being the cause. Amendt first encountered Hal when he was seven years old, and then again in 2009 when, as part of Guthrie Theatre, he performed the title role in their touring production of Henry V. Now, he takes some time to reflect on the great king’s younger persona.

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You started performing Shakespeare at a very young age…
“Well, my mom was an English teacher and needed a prop infant when she was directing shows. I think I played the changeling in A Midsummer’s Night Dream when I was just a wee tot. Ever since then it has just been really present for me and made a lot of sense. I was too young to know any better – that I wasn’t supposed to like it. It wasn’t a popular thing to like Shakespeare.”

What appealed to you about Shakespeare?
“I loved the sweeping grandness of the story and the beauty of the poetry and the power of the verse. All those things really meant a lot to me. I was very young and I just grew into it as I got older. Then I trained at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, where I was fortunate enough to be taken into the acting company there and worked for ten years on all the great Shakespeare plays.”

Why did you particularly identify with the Hal/Henry character?
“To be honest with you, I am as befuddled about it as anybody. I had some health stuff when I was young and my mom gave me these plays when I was frightened, when I was a frightened sick kid. I think every little kid loves to think that there is a story out there about them, particularly princes and princess and kings and kingdoms, monsters and dragons. I think that the journey that Prince Hal takes to become Henry V and the choices he makes as that king meant a lot to me. That you could make mistakes and come back from them, that you could change, that you weren’t out of the game.

“He just sort of felt like a big brother to me, somebody to take care of me and keep me on the straight and narrow. Of course, as I got older the ambiguity of the plays and the cruelty of all the characters – Hal certainly can be very cruel – came through, and it became more challenging for me. It’s a great story to grow up with and grow into because it’s so deep and broad, and complex. There is something for everybody at every point in their life.”

How did audiences react to this production?
“Well, you know, what’s fascinating about these plays is they exist on such different ends of the spectrum depending on the viewer. I have had people in the audience come up to me and say they have never been able to connect with Hal and how much they admire or enjoyed the work we did in this production with him sort of being a child growing into a man. And I have had audience members come up to me and say ‘That’s not the play for me, you are not my Hal, and I didn’t get any of that.’

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“It’s such a subjective thing. These two poles of honour versus the reality of political machinations – how we move through the world as political animals – anyone who comes in contact with the plays develops their own perspective on that. Maybe that is why it’s popular – not because it is one thing, but because it can be so many for people.

“I think that is really the strength of Michael’s direction in the show that he has been very specific about the acting and the tension and the characters – and been brave enough to let the plays breathe and let people feel the way they feel. I’ve been accosted on the street by people saying I’m their Hal or I am absolutely not their Hal. That’s a really fascinating experience to have lived through. It’s very interesting the way we do battle with each other about what these plays mean to a contemporary audience.”

What, for you, are these plays about?
“They are all about different things, which I think is the beautiful thing. Henry IV, Part 1 is such a coming-of-age story and it’s such a broad sort of summer blockbuster of Shakespeare plays – so much life and vitality and a real struggle for what kind of community we want to be. And Henry IV, Part 2, it’s sort of humble, forlorn. That’s one of the incredible things about these plays – they don’t really exist independently of each other in terms of the plot, but in terms of themes and character they are very different plays. One of these things that is fun to work on is I think you can really feel the playwright wrestling with these questions himself.”

Why is this specific part of history so popular right now?
“I always hate that they are called history plays because it’s not really history. Most of the character relationships are completely fictional. He was certainly inspired by what he read in the Holinshed about the history of England, but Hotspur and Hal never fought. Hotspur was a much older man and Hal was a little more than a child at the Battle of Shrewsbury. I think he was 16. There is an element of them that is a mythic play and I think that’s what audiences are drawn to today.”

What are some of your favourite moments in the plays?
“There are so many. The play-within-a-play with Falstaff in the tavern scene, the rejection and the foreshadowing of that. I love doing that with Stacy [Keach]. Stacy’s delightful to play with in that scene when everybody’s on stage together and you can really feel a live, thrilling sense of danger happening in that bar. Then rejecting Falstaff – ‘I know thee not, old man’ is one of the great scenes in Shakespeare. Two people coming to this impasse in their relationship where what they want or what they would desire if they were free is impossible. It comes to this awful conclusion and I think in our performance that that’s as difficult for Hal as it is for Falstaff. The writing in that bit is beautiful, the shifting of the pronouns from the royal pronoun to the personal pronoun. It’s a much more complicated speech than I gave it credit for.

“And then of course the bedroom scenes with Ed Gero, an incredible actor who is playing an incredible King Henry. When Henry is leaving and the two of them are sort of negotiating everything, it is certainly a contemporary father-son relationship. The ideas of ‘What am I passing on?’ and ‘What have you given me?’ Those scenes are delightful in the way that fathers and sons misunderstand each other.”

Read the full feature on this production of Henry IV Parts 1 & 2 in Issue 3 of Shakespeare Magazine.

Revolution Shakespeare performs Orson Welles’ Five Kings in Philadelphia Museum of Art

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To continue the US celebrations of Shakespeare’s 450th birthday, Revolution Shakespeare is staging Orson Welles’ Five Kings - a five-hour adaptation of Henry IV, Part 1, Henry IV, Part 2 and Henry V – in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

When Welles first staged (and starred in) Five Kings in 1938, the massive length hindered the production, forcing it to close amidst negative reviews before it finished its tour.

The original vision for the production entailed a second part to cover Henry VI and Richard III. However, after the negative reception of the first part, Welles never finished the second.

To make it more manageable, Revolution has divided the play into five one-hour performances and is presenting one portion of the play each week.

Rather than taking place on a stage, each performance is in a different gallery of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. The locations range from the rotunda - featuring Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – as the stage for Hal’s carousing, to the French Chapel for Henry V’s wooing of the French princess.

Taking place every Wednesday in July, performances start at 6pm. All performances are “Pay What You Wish”, and will feature a brief recap of the previous instalment for those who might have missed it.

Go here for more information.

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