That the RSC’s new productions of Henry IV Parts I and II have a lot of crackle and fizz is in large part due to Alex Hassell who plays young Prince Hall, wayward heir to the throne.
His scenes with Antony Sher as Falstaff – rising and seasoned stars together – are especially memorable. It’s anyone’s guess who expends the most energy.
Hassell, a vicar’s son from Essex, is relishing the role.
“It’s interesting, the differences between the plays,” he says. “Part I has a lot of comedy but is physically exhausting. From the beginning, in the back of my mind is that we’ve got to do this fight scene at the end.
“I know I’m fit enough to do it and we’ve done it over and over again but it’s tiring.
“In Part II I really just have to stand still and speak but the things I have to say are very, very complicated and at times can make me very emotional.”
Hassell, who is 33, throws mind and body at the part of the prince. A colleague revealed that he appeared able to cry real tears at will.
He reacts to this by saying he is not very good at “acting emotional”.
“I don’t fake cry or things like that. I just try to be available to whatever I feel is actually happening inside me at the time. So of course I am acting, Jasper (Britton, who plays Henry IV) is not my father, I’m not a prince, he’s not a king.
“I know this is a game but I really listen to what he’s saying and try to imagine how I’d feel if it were true.”
He adds: “That’s the best way I can offer myself to a job – to stay open and follow my impulses and keep alert. That will lead me to the more genuine, interesting stuff.”
It all sounds a bit dangerous and edge-of-seat. And that, for an audience, can be exhilarating. I can vouch for that having seen this production in Stratford. Alex Hassell is one of the best things in a very good production.
Born in Southend-on-Sea, he laughs as he explains that Brentwood, where he had his first brush with Shakespeare – playing Francis Flute in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, aged about 13 – is now known for a modern cultural phenomenon, the TV series The Only Way Is Essex.
But he says it was seeing a production of The Rock Nativity that sparked his interest in the stage. “I knew immediately that was what I wanted to do – be an actor. I looked in the paper for a local group and auditioned for Bugsy Malone.
“I got to play Bugsy and thought, if it’s that easy I’ll continue. If only it had remained that way.”
He cut his teeth on musicals, learning to sing and dance, because that was what the am dram circuit had to offer. “My dance teacher thought I could be a dancer but I didn’t think I was good enough. Looking at the girls, who were much better than me, I knew I’d be kidding myself.”
He went to London’s Central School of Speech and Drama and relished the challenges that came his way.
“I’m not saying being in a musical isn’t a challenge because it is. It’s one I couldn’t meet. But the things I get turned on by are very complicated scripts that really require you to get to grips with something.
“I find this part the most complicated I’ve ever played. I still come off stage feeling I’ve really fallen short. But I feel OK about that.
“I love being on the stage very, very much. I don’t really get nervous although sometimes I get deeply nervous. A few days before press night I felt really down and anxious. I was telling my wife (actress Emma King) about it and she said, ‘Well, it’s your press night’.”
It does seem Alex Hassell’s attitude to fear is to say: bring it on! He has a theatre company, The Factory, which he set up with a drama school friend and explains: “It’s all about spontaneity and every performance being a one-night-only experience”.
In one show, audiences had to play scissors, paper, stone to determine which actor played which role. Another had no set, costumes or props but the audience was invited to bring random objects.
On one occasion the action moved without warning from theatre to bar to roof, keeping the audience on its toes.
The edginess comes out in his very watchable Hal, the badly behaved youth who eventually embraces the responsibilities of kingship.
Henry VI Parts I and II run in rotation at Newcastle Theatre Royal from tomorrow. Box office: 0844 8112121.