at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Friday 2nd December 2011
Written for www.StageWon.co.uk
Origins stories are all the rage. In recent years, we’ve seen how Batman, Superman and even Sherlock Holmes came to be the heroes we know they are. Now, in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Christmas offering of 2011, David Farr revamps the classic myth of Robin Hood, giving a new twist whilst simultaneously making a comment on our current social conditions. But, although Gisli Örn Gardarsson’s production has some superb moments and clearly has a heart, overall it is somewhat lacking in intellect.
Farr’s text focusses on the traditionally placid female of the tale, Marion (Iris Roberts). After escaping the conclaves of the castle, she comes across Robin (James McArdle) and his vagabond gang in Sherwood Forest, choosing to trick them into allowing her to join as Martin, her alter-ego (they don’t allow women to be part of the gang). After much Shakespearean false-identity, child-nabbing and general-power-seeking, things resolve themselves in a joyful climax.
It’s an ingenious time to be staging such a production, which shows that, while we are told society is ‘broken’ by our rulers, it is they who are truly corrupt as they arrest innocent civilians, fiddle with taxes and shout loudly about royal weddings. But while I don’t disagree with the sentiment, Farr’s script flits between frivolous and dark like a Tory government which can’t make its mind up about selling off forests. Gardarsson’s production too often strays into pantomime too, lowering itself to cheap jokes regularly and mixing ingeneous stagecraft (instruments as animals and impressive aerial choreography by Selma Björnsdóttir) with obvious ideas. Yes, this is a family show, but the RSC has itself proved that family shows can appeal to adults and children alike if bold decisions are made.
And although the cast is strong, they all lack the character which Börkur Jonsson’s set (complete with overhead branches and a massive slide which allows for dynamic entrances) embodies so easily. We never truly believe McArdle and his Merry Men are people of the earth, and Prince John’s men, led by Tim Treloar’s Guy of Gisborne, are hardly very frightening. Roberts’ Marion does a good job of providing the emotional heart of the piece, and Ólafur Darri Ólafsson copes well with letting the audience in as her jester Pierre, but it is Martin Hutson’s Prince John who impresses most. Hutson superbly straddles the line between pantomime villain and a James Bond nemesis, and is the creator of some of the best moments in the production.
Björn Helgason’s magical lighting and Högni Egilsson’s epic sound hark back to the story’s legendary roots, while Emma Ryott’s costume has echoes of the contemporary, but just like the script and tone of the production, the design lacks a real sense of cohesion. While The Heart of Robin Hood ultimately fails to truly capture our hearts and tries to do too hard to shoehorn in lots of ideas, it is nonetheless better than most ‘family’ shows, and provides a good rubric for future shows. Perhaps we’ll see Beowolf’s Sword within the not-too-distant future.