The hero’s journey Shakespeare charts in history plays coming to Hong Kong

Henry V is one of the Bard’s great plays. Presenting it with its two prequels, Henry IV, Parts I and II, as Royal Shakespeare Company will do at Hong Kong Arts Festival, will help audiences understand forces of destiny that shape a great leader

PUBLISHED : Monday, 25 January, 2016, 6:01am
UPDATED : Monday, 25 January, 2016, 5:59pm

Hal is young and lost but he has to grow up fast. His father has snatched the crown of England, and since he is the heir apparent, Hal is due to inherit a troubled kingdom. His best mate is an old alcoholic called Falstaff, who leads him into all sorts of trouble, but even he has some wisdom from which Hal can learn. The question is: will the young Prince learn about the really important things of life in time to lead his motley troops against the powerful French army?

The three Shakespeare plays of Henry IV, Part I and Part II, and Henry V are a coming-of-age story. They were written in the late 16th century, about a prince who lived in the early 15th century but through the ages, many leading theatre directors have felt that the messages in these three so-called “history” plays speak to their own generation right now.

Henry V is one of the great Shakespeare plays. And with its two prequels being performed together here for the first time by the Royal Shakespeare Company in March as part of this year’s Hong Kong Arts Festival, local audiences have a rare chance to understand what forces of destiny, chance and mischief could possibly combine to make an unruly teenager into a great leader.

The role of Prince Hal (who becomes King Henry V) in this RSC production is charismatically played by 35-year-old Alex Hassell.

Star Wars is, of course, a massive cultural thing right now,” says Hassell as he and co-actor Sam Marks (who plays Hal’s troublemaking friend Poins) take a break between Henry IV parts one and two at the Barbican Theatre.

He says the recent new Star Wars film made him think about the “hero’s journey”, which is a way that writers and film directors – including Star Wars’ original director George Lucas – work with storylines, to make them both enticing and somehow deeply mythologically truthful.

“In every hero’s journey there is a mentor who hands a weapon to the hero and then moves out of the way… and in the future the hero slays the thing he is most afraid of, using that same weapon, though perhaps in an unexpected way,” Hassell explains.

For Hal, the disreputable old drinker Falstaff is like a kind of mentor. “I’ve really been thinking hard about what the weapon was. And I think the weapon is role play,” he says. “Role play and the surprising and unexpected use of language.”

So in Henry IV we see Hal and Falstaff doing a comic but deeply important improvised play routine in the tavern with Falstaff pretending to be the King and Hal being himself, and then Hal being the King and Falstaff being Hal ... which morphs into how in Henry V the new young king is constantly pretending to be different sorts of kings, as well as pretending to be an ordinary soldier.

“He is playing at being a king and I think he sometimes thinks about what Falstaff would have done, and then he does it, and it’s something unexpected that throws his enemies completely,” Hassell says.

“Truth is completely malleable to him in Henry V and I think he’s learned that from Falstaff. But I think that’s why only someone who’s had the background of Prince Hal could have become a leader like he did... other kings wouldn’t have done it that way, and other kings wouldn’t have won.”

Throughout the past 100 years, most artistic directors of the RSC have each done a Henry cycle, says Greg Doran, the company’s artistic director and director of this latest Henry cycle.

“Each artistic director would somehow define a cycle as his,” he said.

And each artistic director would also be responding to what was happening in the world at the time of the performance. The Laurence Olivier film version was created in 1944 and opened towards the end of the second world war at the time of the Normandy landings.

“Churchill said it must help the war effort, and anything negative about soldiering was taken out,” says Doran.

The Peter Hall version of Henry V came out at the height of Vietnam war; the Adrian Noble version, starring Kenneth Branagh came out in 1984 soon after England had been at war with Argentina in the Falkland Islands; the most recent previous version by Nicholas Hytner in 2003 had specific references to Iraq. “It’s a barometer of the public mood about war.”

His own version had not intended specifically to reference a war. But Henry V was playing a matinee the day after the Paris killings on November 13, “and when Henry read out the number [and names] of the slaughtered, you could have heard a pin drop”.

Doran always starts a new Shakespeare play by getting the actors to sit around a table and speaking what they are saying in contemporary language. In this one they also started by scribbling out “Part One” in the script for Henry IV.

“We wondered at first whether it was one play that exploded into two parts when Shakespeare wrote it, but then we changed our mind,” says the director.

“You can see the trajectory of Hal’s journey to become king. All the big moments of Henry V are there in embryo in Henry IV. Part I has a very clear structure and Part II it felt as if it was the same structure, but made more strange: there’s another rebellion to deal with, and Prince Hal is learning about becoming King in a different way.

“Part Two takes its own tone. It’s much more filled with the language of disease and destruction; it’s a sort of dying fall, not having to be driven by plot.”

Henry IV, Part II is the rarest play of the three to be performed: it has some great scenes, including the abandonment of Falstaff, and the death of King Henry IV, but it is also the play that of the three is most complex and strange. Doran says those who are planning to catch this play are well advised to study it before the performance.

Henry IV Part I and Part II; Henry V; three full cycles and two extra performances of Henry V (in English with Chinese surtitles). March 4 to 13, Academy for Performing Arts, Wan Chai, HK$200 to HK$680 Urbtix and HK Ticketing