Henry V, Olivier National Theatre

A risky invasion, a short-lived victory: not a play for Mr Blair
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The Independent Culture

A youngish head of state commits his armed forces to the risky invasion of a foreign power. The grounds for the attack are morally as well as legally dubious and the justifications scraped together are strained. He scores a victory, but not before his vaunted Christian morals and accountability to the common man have been exposed as sham. On the one hand, he's viewed as a courageous hero; on the other, he's seen a self-serving myth-maker, avid for his purple passage in the history books.

A youngish head of state commits his armed forces to the risky invasion of a foreign power. The grounds for the attack are morally as well as legally dubious and the justifications scraped together are strained. He scores a victory, but not before his vaunted Christian morals and accountability to the common man have been exposed as sham. On the one hand, he's viewed as a courageous hero; on the other, he's seen a self-serving myth-maker, avid for his purple passage in the history books.

You don't need to be Clare Short to feel you have heard this one before. And certainly a trip to the National Theatre to see Nicholas Hytner's searingly sceptical modern dress production of Henry V – a play which tells much the same story – would be something of a busman's holiday. Hytner does not force the analogy. (Rory Bremner has not been cast in the title role.) But the mood of the times has surely prompted him to stress and embellish those aspects of Shakespeare's deeply equivocal patriotic drama that are most uneasy about the morality of war.

The chorus in this version is no booming muse-of-fire merchant, but a hero-worshipping PA (Penny Downie) whose deluded raptures about the king and his campaign are often undercut by the ruder reality. From the start, the production's antiheroic stance makes itself felt in the unlovely boardroom scene where a fruity, self-serving Archbishop of Canterbury discloses the convoluted legalisms that could authorise the invasion of France.

Chilly and severe, liable to rush in a moment from eerie restraint to cold fury, Adrian Lester's powerful Henry is evidently overcompensating for his reckless youth in a determined display of humourless righteousness.

The vivid, well-staged war scenes – where many of Henry's speeches are filmed as propaganda and televised with French subtitles to intimidate the enemy – sometimes a show a more human and uncertain monarch. But his ruthlessness is also chillingly conveyed in the scene where, in the face of a counterattack, he orders the shooting of the French prisoners. In Hytner's account, this so sickens his soldiers that most of them refuse to comply and it's left to one maniac zealot to carry out what is a war crime. And the stink of sanctimony pollutes the celebration of victory with the sentimental movie footage and rap song soundtrack thanking God for backing the right side.

The play's sense of the swift perishability of the fruits of war is another reason why this version of Henry V might not make such a relaxing evening for the Prime Minister.

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