ROBIN HOOD AND MARIAN
New Vic Theatre, Newcastle under Lyme, Saturday 28th November, 2015
The Christmas show at the New Vic is invariably a highlight of the season and yet again director Theresa Heskins hits the bullseye with her own adaptation of the Robin Hood legend.
It begins with the wedding of Robert of Loxley to Marian Fitzwater, but the ceremony is interrupted; there’s a bit of a barney resulting in Robert being dispossessed and Marian being repossessed – he becomes an outlaw and she becomes a ward of the evil Prince John. The outlaw gathers friends and followers, with familiar episodes along the way: for example, meeting Little John for the first time – a fast and furious fight on a rope bridge that is economically, and therefore effectively, staged.
As Robin Hood, Isaac Stanmore manages to be dashing while keeping things down to earth. He’s an ordinary man driven to extraordinary things by his conscience rather than a thigh-slapping aristocrat. Heskins’s Marian is Robin’s equal in all things – in fact, it is often she who saves him from peril. Crystal Condie brings confidence and feminine ferocity – Marian is no tom-boy but her murderous asides revealing what she’d like to do to Prince John are vivid in their imagery. You would not like to cross her.
Perry Moore makes a marvellous and credible villain as the unmanly Prince. He strives to assert himself and come out from under his mother’s wing, while being imperious and cruel. His love for Marian redeems him – a little bit, and Moore is in good voice for both his proclamations and his solo number. As his overbearing mother Queen Eleanor, Charlotte Palmer would not be out of place in a Disney fairy tale.
David Kirkbride’s Little John brings humour as well as brawn, while there is something of Robin’s dashing drive in Jonathan Charles’s Sheriff – he is Robin on the Dark Side, you might say. Susan Harrison is a feisty Young Much and Liam Gerrard an assured Will Scarlet, and I very much enjoyed Bryn Holding as Tuck. Heskins’s script gives the characters plenty to do, and the actors space to establish themselves. They’re a hard-working bunch – if they’re not in a scene, holding a tree, or operating a puppet, they’re in the tiny pit playing live music.
And such music! James Atherton’s scores are always wonderful but he has excelled himself this time. There is medieval colouring to it, with flute, drums and strings, and there is something cinematic in the underscoring of moments of action and of emotion. The songs have a hint of Sondheim to them, catchy and sophisticated. Beautiful. I crave a recording!
Lis Evans’s costumes are colourful without being pantomime, and Laura Clarkson’s set of stark branches and stony outcrops evokes both forest and castle. The fights, up close and in the round, are electrifying. Directed by Philip d’Orleans, whether it’s hand-to-hand, with swords, knives or what-have-you, the violence seems both heightened and real – characters lives’ are affected by the outcomes. This is not knockabout or slapstick in any way. There is a moment of slow-motion before the fights break out, like the tension of pulling back a bowstring before the arrow is released. Exciting!
Heskins covers a lot of ground in her intelligent and accessible script. The show doesn’t talk down to the audience and is flavoured with plenty of medieval-sounding vocabulary (insults especially) and syntax to give the piece authenticity. The central ensemble is fleshed out by a well-disciplined team of local children, and some beautifully crafted puppets: the birds of prey have a scene to themselves in which they discuss gender roles – it’s one of the play’s central messages but because it’s puppets it doesn’t seem preachy. Elsewhere this message is delivered very clearly via action.
The title might lead you to think it’s about the central relationship between the two leads but it’s not. Robin and Marian are equals, fighting together against injustice and oppression. I find myself surprisingly moved, not by a love story, but by the call-to-arms to give the poor and needy a better deal. Heskins’s masterstroke is the inclusion of Magna Carta into proceedings, with King John rebranding himself (a little) in order to secure his place in history. It strikes a chord: we could do with a Robin or Marian figure these days to bring our current government to account for the very same reasons.
An exciting, fresh and relevant take on the legend, Robin Hood and Marian has plenty for everyone to enjoy.