Nicholas Hytner's production of Shakespeare's play about a young leader going into war under the most spurious of excuses couldn't have had more obvious associations with today's events - unless, perhaps, the king of France had been portrayed with a bushy moustache and a beret, that is.
But it's one thing drawing modern-day parallels, it's another thing making them succeed. In this, his first production as the NT's director, Hytner succeeds gloriously thanks mainly to an outstanding performance from Adrian Lester in the title role. Most productions are either patriotic rabble-rousers or (more recently) follow the war-is-hell-but-necessary camp. However, Henry V's invasion is anything but necessary, and Lester's king is a supreme manipulator and ruthless politician.
Hytner's production doesn't miss any opportunities for making nods to the Iraqi invasion, from the videoed political broadcasts to the manifold references to God - although this Henry doesn't exactly display Christian humility; he almost invokes the word God as a threat, like a sort of spiritual enforcer. Nor is there any sign of compassion: he executes Bardolph personally and rewards the soldier, John Williams, only grudgingly. Naturally, this production includes his infamous order to kill the French prisoners - a task too far for the common soldier - so Llewellyn finishes the job for them.
One wonders, however, how this Henry could have cajoled and inspired a raggle-taggle, sickly and outnumbered army to such a famous victory. Deviousness and manipulation would only go so far - wars aren't won on spin alone. But that's to quibble. This is a superb turn by Lester - it's good to have him back on the London stage.
There are also strong supporting performances. Notably Adrian Levy's snazzily-suited, skittish Dauphin, Ian Hogg's morose and stately French monarch, and Robert Blythe's Llewellyn (nice to see a production not scared to correct Shakespeare's spelling) is less of a Welsh caricature than is usual. There are also two well-judged cameos from William Gaunt, first as a bureaucratic Canterbury, discoursing on the Salic law with the aid of coloured charts and dossiers and then as Burgundy, weeping in the aftermath of war.
There are times when the production is over-gimmicky (it's always good to see Desmond Barrit, but I don't think the home video of Falstaff actually adds anything) and the large Olivier stage doesn't exactly resemble the "cockpit" that Penny Downie's schoolmarmish Chorus refers to. But if all productions in Hytner's new reign are as good as this, then we can look forward to some wonderful nights at National.