Can't help acting on impulse

THEATRE Henry V RSC, Stratford-upon-Avon
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To stage Henry V in a war memorial surround and to bring on a doomily-lit brigade of modern soldiers as a cautionary counterpoint to the Chorus's rousing introductory speech is par for the course these days. We're used to productions that strive to atone for the play's now embarrassing patriotic fervour by heightening its equally vivid depiction of the horrors and the cost of war.

Ron Daniels' new RSC account of the play could not be accused of even the slightest delay in this department. After that initial march-in, Michael Sheen's Henry and his men are seen back at court watching film footage of the corpse-littered trenches of the Great War, of soldiers going over the top to be massacred. The King's silhouette falls on the screen, the ghastly images tattoo his face.

It's an odd time, you might have thought, for Henry to be subjecting himself to this painful spectacle of senseless carnage, given that he's also looking to the Church to provide him with a motive, however convolutedly conscience-salving, for an imperialistic invasion of France. But that's how the production insists on viewing the king - as a man forced by his position to veer between wild emotional extremes.

Sheen's physical presence as an actor is potently contradictory: at once very virile and curiously elfin. Here, in a production that asks him to lurch from ugly, psyched-up ecstasies of bestial belligerence, to sobbing sensitivity and staring-eyed self-doubt, he rarely gets the chance to show his qualities in intriguing consort.

The performance is taken at too high a pitch. Confronting the friend who had plotted to assassinate him, this Henry reacts with an embarrassing neurotic intensity, first putting a pistol in the man's hand and daring him to shoot, then snatching it back and holding it to the ex-friend's temples in a frenzied, near-murderous scuffle. He seems such a creature of impulse at moments like this that you forget that Henry is also the wily political operator whose exposure of this friend and the other traitors is a piece of coolly-studied stage management. Indeed, there are times when you feel that, if he goes on at this rate, he'll have to woo Katherine in the final scene from inside a strait-jacket.

Daniels' production equips Henry with a tearful, conscience-stricken colleague in the shape of the young Earl of Warwick. This expanded figure is so appalled by the King's speech threatening the besieged town of Harfleur with hair-raising horrors - a speech made all the more unpleasant here by the squeezed sound of the loudspeakers through which it is relayed - that he tries to snatch the mike from the crazed monarch's hand.

The war to which Warwick is, it seems, only belatedly reconciled, is a rum business in this staging. The French are at something of a disadvantage, having not caught up, by some margin, with the modern techniques of destruction espoused by the English. They totter medievally - not to say suicidally - around on high, two-legged silver horses that look more like the weirdo frocks of some post-Vivienne Westwood designer than animals you'd take anywhere near a battlefield. Whatever point Daniels thinks he is making here is vitiated by the seriously ludicrous spectacle it affords.

There are one or two compensations, such as Alan David's splendid Fluellen. But, for the most part, the uneasiness generated has less to do with the play than with the production that spells out the contradictions too crassly to be moving. A formidable actor like Sheen deserves a more coherent showcase.

To 27 Sept (01789 295623), then touring nationally

Paul Taylor