Barrie Rutter strides squatly on, in his trademark long jacket, arms oustretched and gazes vaguely heavenwards, to give his Chorus as ringmaster, explaining the nature of theatre as mortar for our imaginings. All locations can, if we will it, burgeon from this wooden O (a circus ring in finest polished teak from IKEA, courtesy of designers Giuseppe Belli and Emma Barrington-Binns).
Here, to start the proceedings, is Conrad Nelson, a fresh-faced King of the Blair-ite tendency, thoughtfully engaged in deep discussion of regime change, faced with the specious casuistry of a pair of bull-necked, hawkish prelates who were clearly the Rumsfeld and Powell of their day.
The People's Shakespeare is the specialite de la Maison at Northern Broadsides, and whilst the specific images invoked may, or may not, have been consciously planted, they do suggest an unerring instinct in the company for hitting upon everyday redolences which translate to a broad cross-section of audiences.
Henry V is Shakespeare's study of the young man growing into kingship and leadership. In Nelson's hands he is the touchy-feely sort of man manager, joshing and at one with his raggedy bunch of conscripts. Not for him are oratory or the curlicues of poesy: his soliloquy on the eve of Agincourt is laboured and his St Crispin's Day speech is less an inspiring call to arms than a quiet bon mot designed to relieve nerves. Forget Olivier and Branagh, who were each on wavelengths of their own, and you here have a portrayal of a king with the common touch, which will unquestionably speak clearly to the audiences of 2003 and should be cherished.
On the periphery of the war, Rutter's production makes a great deal of Shakespeare's comic characters and moments. Andy Hockley's pedantic Fluellan and Tim Barker's cowardly lion of a Pistol are both gloriously funny. And whilst there's not a lot in it for the girls, Maeve Larkin creates great hilarity out of Henry's multiply bungled proposal scene.
It's possible, and legitimate, to regret the absence of soaring lyricism, but Northern Broadsides is a national treasure, presenting Shakespeare in clear, uncluttered productions bent on telling the story. As Rutter himself tells it, "basically, it's us, the text and costumes." Long may it be so.