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Alex Hassell Tackles 9 Hours of Prince Hal and King Henry in the RSC's Cycle of Kings

The Henriad comes to Brooklyn Academy of Music in honor of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death.

For Shakespeare buffs, the chance to see the Bard's legendary Henriad — the cycle of Richard II, Henry IV (Parts 1 and 2), and Henry V — is a rare and exciting opportunity. Now, in a major theatrical event, the works will be seen back to back through May 1 at Brooklyn Academy of Music.

A production of the Royal Shakespeare Company, King and Country: Shakespeare's Great Cycle of Kings presents the tetralogy in all its glory, with Dr. Who and Broadchurch favorite David Tennant as Richard, the legendary performer Antony Sher as Falstaff, and the 35-year-old actor named Alex Hassell taking on the iconic roles of Prince Hal and King Henry.

"The shows give me energy," says Hassell, who spends nearly nine hours on stage over the course of a weekend. "They're so full of life and they're so much to tackle. That's what I want as an actor and this is what I've been waiting for."

Alex Hassell as King Henry in the Royal Shakespeare Company production of Henry V, directed by Gregory Doran, at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
(© Stephanie Berger)

When you were approached for this Gods and Kings cycle, how intimidating was it for you as a performer?
I like a challenge. I have a fear that I'm not good enough to do it, [and this was an] attempt to overcome those feelings. I was excited. Then you start to look at the script and go, "Oh my god." The amount of famous speeches and the amount of famous people that have done these scenes, that sits in you and doesn't go away, to be honest. I don't know. It's masochistic, but I like the idea of seeing if I can be measured with all those other people.

What is it like to do this much Shakespeare over the course of 24 hours and grow a character from playful youth to supreme ruler?
It's a really wonderful experience. I much prefer it like that. To play a Shakespearean character over the course of three plays is so unusual. When you actually attempt to fathom what he's trying to deal with, it's just horrendous. [laughs] It's such a huge responsibility [that] it's almost impossible to get your head around. It's a wonderful thing to play moment to moment. In Henry V, by the time I'm saying stuff about my father and where I've come from, about Falstaff and Bardolph, it's all still fresh in my memory and in my emotional life. I try to allow it all to hit me and dance around in my impulses. Sometimes, there will be something [new] that will arrive in my head in Henry IV, Part I and it will keep feeding through all the way into Henry V.

Is that still happening, even having done these plays for more than two years?
Yeah, it really is. To begin with, we did Henry IV One and Two for a year, and then we had a break…and then Henry V by itself, and then put [the Henrys] together. Doing them by themselves, you create the structure of the shows, and to put them all together, a whole load of new impulses and links hit you. Of course, as much as we tried to link them when they were separate, it's going to make much more sense if you play them so close together. It changed and morphed again this latter part of playing them all.

Prior to this New York run, you took the plays to China. What was it like playing Shakespeare for audiences in Beijing and Shanghai?
It was really, really interesting. The main reason being that we were working with [supertitles]. When we were in Beijing and Shanghai, the audience, we felt, were exclusively reading the play. They would respond only to whatever was funny or poignant in the translation. And we had no idea when that was or what that was, because, obviously, translating a Shakespeare play is such a difficult thing. There would sometimes be responses in places we'd never had them, and no responses at all in places where we always had them before. That was good preparation for coming to New York and doing the best shows we can.

And the Brooklyn run is the end of the line.
Yeah, that's it. For some of the guys, it's been three years. For me, it'll be the end of a two and a half year contract with the RSC, which has been a huge deal. This is, by far, the most responsibility and the most high-profile platform I've had as an actor. It's been a really big learning curve and a huge, validating life experience for me. I'm interested to see what might come next and what other opportunities there might be.

Antony Sher as Falstaff and Alex Hassell as Prince Hal in Gregory Doran's production of Henry IV for the Royal Shakespeare Company at Brooklyn Academy of Music.
(© Richard Termine)