THE HEART OF ROBIN HOOD
RST, Stratford-upon-Avon, Monday 28th November, 2011
When the RSC get their Christmas shows right, they are very, very right (think of last year’s Matilda, and the previous year’s Arabian Nights) but when they don’t… Ahem.
This latest retelling of the Robin Hood story is a terrible mix-up. It is neither fish nor fowl. I couldn’t tell if it’s a light-hearted romp with desperate attempts to be relevant (“We are fighting the Muslim terror!” is the cry as Prince John increases taxes to pay for his unpopular war) or whether it’s a grisly history play that has been leavened with humour to make it more palatable for a Christmas audience.
The set is a maHOOsive green slide running from ceiling to floor, down which the actors plummet, making for speedy and fun entrances – this goes against the tone of the more serious scenes. The actors then have to scramble back up again, clinging to ropes. This wears thin after a while and I longed for someone to use a door. Platforms open out from this giant slide, like drawbridges, to suggest scenes in a castle. Characters stand on these like Olympic divers having a chat before plunging off – which they never do. Before long I was willing them to jump.
Knockabout comedy and outright silliness jar with graphic scenes of violence: a beheading, an arrow through the skull, a hanged man swings before his children, and one poor sod gets his tongue cut out. Director Ghisli Orn Gardarsson needs to choose which way the production is going. There is a lovely idea where animals are played by actors with musical instruments: a duck waddles about in a tutu with a muted trumpet, a dog is basically a man crouching with a clarinet – and this works very well until the animals become anthropomorphised in their behaviour. On the other hand there is a woefully ill-advised gag when a shark’s fin appears in the on-stage pond to the opening bars of the theme from Jaws. I’ve nothing against silliness, inventive, clever silliness but this shark should have been quickly followed by a tumbleweed.
The story is dominated by Marion, an earnest tomboy (Iris Roberts) who decides to establish her own band of outlaws in the guise of “Martin of Sherwood” with the assistance of her lummox of a clown and confidant, Pierre (Olafur Darri Olafsson) – think John Candy does Billy Connolly but with an Icelandic twang. This Pierre, or Big Peter, to give him his outlaw name, tries to interact with the audience but we are never sure whether we should answer him. Similarly, evil Prince John (Martin Hutson) is an enjoyable villain and we feel like we should boo him like King Rat, but the tone of the scenes veers suddenly into darker waters. Little John is played by a dwarf (a sardonic Michael Walter), presumably just for the joke of Little John really being little.
Robin himself is an unlikable prig. While his Merry Men are bedraggled and dishevelled, he has a David Tennant haircut and leather trousers, like an ex-boyband member doing panto. What Marion/Martin sees in him apart from his tendency to strut around topless I can’t fathom. By the end, his growing affection for Martin has softened him. He has learned to protect the vulnerable in society. I still didn’t like him though.
David Farr’s script includes nods to Shakespearean plot devices. Marion’s cross-dressing ends in a reveal that is like Viola’s. The tongue scene is like the blinding of Gloucester. Prince John’s exit is like Malvolio’s but Gardarsson’s direction makes a right hash of it all. Had I not seen the director as an actor in a couple of shows by Kneehigh, I would have thought he was a committee or a video conference, where everyone gets to chuck in an idea just to keep the peace. The rope-climbing is just one element Kneehigh have used and used better. The final air-ballet with Robin and Marion is a direct lift from their Tristan & Yseult.
With the baddies wearing crucifixes and spouting religious condemnation, they are the right wing bullies we see in world politics today. Robin rejects this – he takes Guy of Gisborne’s cross and drops it into the pond; he makes a mockery of the confessional (another wildly jarring scene with a theatrical trick out of keeping with the rest of it) and refuses to marry in the cathedral, preferring instead the forest. This is all well and good but the forest is home to The Green Man – a lady from the circus who grants wishes and shrieks like Xena: Warrior Princess. Robin’s philosophy doesn’t offer a credible alternative to the oppressive status quo.
This awfully uneven, hotchpotch of a knockoff Kneehigh is a big disappointment. Russell Crowe is off the hook. Kevin Costner not so much.