RSC artistic director Michael Boyd talks to Terry Grimley about completing his acclaimed history cycle with Henry V.
Is Henry V Shakespeare's rehearsal for writing Hamlet? That's one of the ideas that has intrigued Michael Boyd as he has come to direct Shakespeare's seemingly most patriotic play for the first time.
You can see the general idea - two misfit princes, both plagued by self-doubt. One goes on to redeem himself as king, the other doesn't.
"Shakespeare was probably writing the two plays around about the same time," says Boyd. "When I see Hamlet I think if only he had taken over the crown he would have been a glorious king, and this tests it.
"And I think Hal is not a bad king. He is determinedly moral, he has great integrity, even though other people question his integrity from beginning to end."
Even so, the Royal Shakespeare Company's artistic director admits to having fought shy of the play until now, when it is the final piece in the jigsaw of his complete eight-play history cycle. He owns up to having misjudged the play in the past.
"I read it very superficially and thought it was Shakespeare in the pay of Queen Elizabeth, having to write a big patriotic piece - completely and utterly underrating the man's craft and genius," he says. "And now I realise its all sort of things.
"Way beyond the obvious descriptions of war, there's an ambivalence about what Hal is doing steeped right through the piece. And yet Hal is this glorious and sympathetic character, which is so Shakespearean.
"You can't help going with this journey. One of the reasons you do is that he's generous enough to share it with you, and another reason is that he is so riven with self-doubt.
"Shakespeare takes care to show that for Hal going to war is not a trivial business. There's all sorts of skulduggery at the top. At the beginning Hal is concerned with the bill first introduced by his father to take half the Church's property, and the Archbishop says he has bought Hal by offering his political support for the wars in France.
"But it's such a lovely rich complex piece, where at the same time you're ridiculing the French and feeling desperately sympathetic towards them."
Henry V is unique among Shakespeare's plays in representing a kind of national myth which can have a different meaning depending on current events.
Its meaning when Laurence Olivier made his famous film version during the Second World War was plain enough. But since the 1980s, when the Falklands reintroduced us to a kind of colonial war generally assumed to be extinct, productions have often taken a more wary view of the play's portrait of a warrior nation.
"We've had a celebrated production recently that took the 80s/90s line in Nick Hytner's production at the National, and I think that's still valid. We are in a slightly different context in that we're coming out of a cycle, so we're particularly interested in all the echoes back and forward.
"I've been struck by how much the French remind me of the British and Americans in Iraq, and the English rhetoric reminds me of Islamic fundamentalists. The politics of England remind me of a fundamentalist state with a very dangerous, very powerful church, and a very religious leader."
What are the big points, in terms of both theatre and politics, that have emerged from staging the complete histories?
"In terms of the politics of it, the plays are one of the most powerful searchlights on the abuse of power in the English language. It also at times, like in Henry V, is a wonderful investigation of how to live. It's a threnody for the brevity and difficulty of human life, and it's a celebration of human courage."
Theatrically, Boyd points out, the cycle "breathes brilliantly" between plays which are about a person and plays about the world.
"With the plays about a person it's about what they do to the world, and with the plays about the world it's about what the world does to people.
"That makes for very great drama. There's no wonder that they hugely inspired Brecht, because they are plays that really invite the audience in, and we've been able to address that in our space in The Courtyard.
"They are written from the edge of what theatre can do. Shakespeare is showing off what theatre can do, and that's a lovely opportunity for a company."
* Henry V is in repertory at The Courtyard, Stratford-upon-Avon, until March 14 (Box office: 0844 800 1110).