The Heart of Robin Hood

David Farr
Royal Shakespeare Company
Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
(2011)

Enter the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for their festive season production, The Heart of Robin Hood, and you enter the dappled realm of Sherwood Forest. A vast oak tree whose branches spread wide to the upper balconies above canopies the stage. The stage itself is a verdant mass of grass and weeds, every surface as organic as the leaves that populate the tree above. The perspectival expanse of greenery is heightened by a steep curving sweep of stage that disappears up and back into the furthest recesses of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre’s fly tower. We have yet to learn what magical effects this innovative design can conjure.

Birds tweet and twitter as two figures perch precariously far above us. Two musicians, instruments in hand, become avian creatures jerking their feathered heads as the action begins below. This gloriously simple convention—animals and birds portrayed by actors who physicalize their movements while playing appropriate, though hilariously outlandish musical instruments—is established. Whether the faithful dog Pug (Peter Bray), who barks and whimpers through his clarinet, the cello-wielding wild boar, or the trumpet-beaked goose, all add to the delight of the young and not-so-young audience.

Into this sylvan world steps the buffoonish courtier/clown, Pierre (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson), a deliciously camp giant, part Lion in The Wizard of Oz , part Placido Domingo in expansive doublet and hose. Ólafsson’s Pierre becomes the narrator of David Farr’s excellent entertainment, guiding the audience through the trials and tribulations of an overweight cowardy-custard who turns heroic defender of the Sherwood innocents. Ólafsson is utterly engaging, his lugubrious bass voice filling the Royal Shakespeare Theatre like Icelandic dark chocolate.

Pierre cares for the poor Marion (Iris Roberts), younger sister of the vampishly seductive Alice (Flora Montgomery), who cannot understand any man’s attraction for such an innocent tomboyish figure. Farr’s subtle homage to As You Like It emerges with the escape of Marion in boy’s attire and her comical appearance as a robber-supreme rival to Robin Hood. Roberts develops such a rapport with the audience, her every setback and success is greeted with dismay or happiness as the situation warrants.

Marion needs to escape because of the wicked Prince John. Martin Hutson is as menacing as he is suavely elegant, his portrayal of the psychopathic John as Pinteresque as it is pantomimic. Alice’s charms are ineffectual. This prince wants nothing more than to dominate the lovely Marion. To impress his future bride, he embarks on a murderous campaign of taxation, hanging and child-killing. Hutson seems to relish his role as much as we relish his eventual downfall.

Although ably assisted by Tim Treloar’s Guy of Gisborne, Prince John is eventually thwarted in his wicked plans. The reason? Marion, of course, who joins forces with the decidedly caddish, violently unpredictable outlaw in the forest named Robin Hood. James McArdle’s Robin is not the traditional medieval hero, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor. Nor is he the lord of misrule, favoured by drunken revellers and fairgoers throughout the land as mythical commentator on social inequity. McArdle’s Robin is a thug through and through. We watch as he flings a dagger into the head of a quaking friar, or decapitates his victim in the dismal safety of the forest. Robin Hood only finds his moral core when he finds love, but the journey is far from easy and many suffer en route.

Robin is accompanied by a band of Merry Men. This motley crew of social misfits determinedly survive by criminality and violence. In a stroke of casting genius, Little John becomes the littlest of the Sherwood foresters. Michael Walter, a diminutive figure no bigger than some of the children who laughed at his antics, is a comic delight. His irascible though ultimately good-natured character self-deprecatingly ‘heightens’ the humour of his small size. Often the butt of decidedly uncomfortable jokes and physical mishaps, Walter’s Little John emerges as a tower of strength in an already elevated ensemble production.

Elevated. Ensemble. In the hands of Icelandic director Gisli Örn Gardarsson, and with the outstanding set design of Börkur Jonsson, The Heart of Robin Hood is moulded into a fast-paced comic drama worthy of its illustrious home. Jonsson’s set, with its steep elevation disappearing into the backstage heights, becomes the stuff of childhood fantasy. No stuffy, boring entrances on foot for these actors. Instead characters slide down the perilously precipitous slope to arrive in a scene on their bottoms with the poise of ballet stars. To leave a scene, strategically positioned ropes allow actors of all shapes and sizes to scamper back up and out of view with all the physical effort of a medieval marine corps.

Add to this superb conflation of playground fun turned ultimate adventure theme park some decidedly tricky ropework from actors who seem as skilled in circus tricks as in drama, and you get a sense of the joy that unfolds. So refreshing is it, and so thrilling, to watch actors slide down and scamper up ropes without the ubiquitous ‘health and safety’ safeguards that interrupt the action in so many recent productions. These actors fling themselves from on high with that abandon that leaves the audience breathless with fear and anticipation.

Gardarsson’s The Heart of Robin Hood is a festive show to die for. It offers entertainment to all ages. There are streaks of Senecan violence with regular maimings and hangings and piercings with arrows, but all are achieved with the razzmatazz of a Las Vegas magic show. Loads of ‘bottom’ jokes and light, naughty innuendo only fuelled the infectious giggling of the younger first night audience members. This irreverence elevates the play to family entertainment of the highest standard. Great fun, thrilling physicality and a love story that leads to a final visual image of romantic unity as hauntingly stylish as the finest Big Top experience. A must-see production.

Reviewer: Kevin Quarmby