Ron Daniels's excellent production is a sustained critique of the horrors of war. The set is part American Vietnam memorial, part Menin Gate. Well over 2,000 names cover every wall, an ever-present reminder of the fellowship of death.
The cast enter in an eerie slow march in full military dress uniform. It is clear that their names too will join those on the enclosing walls. King Henry is first seen watching with appalled fascination a flickering film of the carnage of 1914-18 trench warfare.
In the presentation of the two opposing armies, Daniels successfully achieves both contemporary and universal relevance. The English wear the combat fatigues of Americans in Vietnam. Burdened by their mud-stained equipment, they contrast starkly with the French, who pose in elegant display, the essence of chivalry. But the production portrays remorselessly how soldiers on both sides die brutally in war.
In this thrilling production, Michael Sheen's King Henry is outstanding. A master of variation in pace and tone, Sheen is one of those few actors who give the impression that the words are being thought and spoken for the first time. It is heartwarming that this touring production will make Sheen's magnificent performance available to students around the country.
* Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until September 27 then touring to Palace Theatre, Manchester, September 30-October 4, Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury, October 14-18, Theatre Royal, Norwich, October 21-25, Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, October 28-November 1, Barbican Theatre, London, November 4-22, Theatre Royal, Bath, December 2-4, New Victoria Theatre, Woking, December 9-13. Details of events to complement the touring production from Sarah Downing, RSC Education Department: 01789 296655