THINK of Shakespeare's History Players and you'd be forgiven for thinking of dry school texts.

"Tell me about it," says Alex Hassell, who stars as Prince Hall in the Royal Shakespeare Company's production of Henry IV Parts I and II. "I wasn't familiar with the plays and read through them both, which was pretty soporific. But on stage they come alive."

Henry IV Part I takes Shakespeare to the street, set largely in a bawdy tavern setting. Alex stars alongside veteran actor Antony Sher and is relishing the journey Hal takes, from party boy prince to heroic figure.

"It's a fun pub setting, which modern audiences can relate to," says Alex. "Hal enjoys hanging out in taverns with Falstaff. I thought at first that he deliberately presented himself as this dissolute figure so his transformation later on would be all the more impressive. But after 100 performances I've given it a lot of thought. Put into the context of what is to come - in Part II and Henry V - to become a good leader Hal needs to know himself, and others. He ploughs his early experiences into his role as King when he gets older. It's an astonishing journey, from party boy to one of the greatest ever leaders in battle, Henry V."

Alex says the two plays can be watched separately "but Part II is the black mirror of Part I and means more if you've seen that first".

"We get our image of Royalty from Shakespeare - think of Richard III and Henry V - but we know that Henry IV was nothing like he was portrayed by Shakespeare. He did him a disservice really, but it was dangerous to portray kings who usurp other kings in Elizabethan times," he says. "Shakespeare does represent the pressures of the Crown though. Henry IV is haunted; what he covets is what destroys him."

Does the bawdy tavern setting make it accessible to a wider audience, and maybe people who might think they don't get Shakespeare?

"I have a problem with that word 'accessibility', it can mean you spoon feed an audience," says Alex. "If you make something lively and watchable, the words start to make sense and there's a connection with the audience.

"Shakespeare is of his time; even though he's writing history plays, set centuries earlier, there's a contemporary element. He uses other times to explore what's going on in his own time. It reminded me of The Wire - lots of things going on at different levels, seeping through various characters."

The production features a dramatic sword fight to a cinematic-style musical score. Watched up close, it's like watching a film.

"It took hours to learn, and only lasts about a minute," says Alex. "It's always in the back of my mind that, at the end of an extremely tiring, physically demanding play (he's in practically every scene) we have this big fight scene coming up, wielding huge pieces of metal at each other. But I love it - it's every boy's dream to have a sword fight!"

Alex, 34, has appeared in TV dramas and comedies including Bonkers, Hustle, Love Soup and Miranda, and in films such as Cold Mountain and Calendar Girls. He's taken on various roles with the RSC, including Hamlet. Any roles he covets? "Henry V is the obvious choice next, and Macbeth. I can play him at my age, or in 10 years time," he says. "Hal is an immensely satisfying part though."

* Henry IV Parts I and II runs at the Alhambra from October 28 to November 1. For tickets call (01274) 432000.