Stratford-upon-Avon glimmers on post-Christmas evenings, and the latest offering from the Royal Shakespeare Company is adding to its lustre with ‘The Heart of Robin Hood’. Director, Gisli Orn Gardarsson and writer, David Farr gift us an explosion of beauty on a canvas of adapted Nottingham tradition.
Led by an updated Robin Hood (James McArdle)– virtuously shirtless and conveniently slow-witted – we are catapulted into the lives of a band of men who are far from traditionally ‘merry’. Primed for rebel reformation à la female fantasy, they are a darker breed – ‘Hood: Gangster. Will: Thief. Much: Liar, cheat, poet (in that order).’ Cue the delightfully sharp Maid Marion (Iris Roberts), a hero of decency, civic virtue and Marxian economy, set to transform a wayward Hood into the respectable figure of Sherwood myth. It’s a PG-neat storyline of dual-character deception, as Marion – fodder of the male gaze, transforms herself into Hood’s fellow outlaw and boyish confidant with the help of a gender-disguising cap, to instruct the men in morality. Gender powerplay is iced by a queenie sidekick – ruffle-shirted Pierre, who is uncomfortably thrust into a world of deep forests and leather-clad highwaymen. Together, the motley crew fight a sinister foe: Prince John and his lackey, who cut morbid silhouettes of evil – taxing the poor, knifing out tongues and plotting child-genocide.
Straddling the line between gritty transformation and the predictable safety of a happy ending, the play finds true brilliance as an aesthetic and auditory feast. A seat in the Upper Circle is mandatory for the viewer who hopes to fully capture the magic. Lush tree branches fill the rafters, becoming home to an orchestra perched amidst the leaves, illuminated as forest-dwelling birds throughout the show. The background set is a steep mossy bank over which a superbly fit cast runs up and down, making entrances and surprise exits through a variety of slides, jumps and acrobatic maneuvers. Perhaps the highlight of the visual display is the trapeze-like use of ropes, suspended from the ceiling, adding another visual layer to the triumph of mis en scene. Börkur Jonsson’s set design is well matched by Emma Ryott’s costuming; the malevolent Prince John is spectacularly on point, Gisborne emerges a vulture-like figure framed in feathers, and Pierre contributes flamboyant couture sensibilities to the Middle Ages aesthetic. The cast is rounded out by a charming duck, dog and even a wild boar, complete with musical instrument beak, snout and chest that transform them into audiovisual delights.
Slapstick humour is well interspersed with moments of quiet poignancy, and the audience responds with fervour – clapping, laughing and boisterously ‘booing’ at appropriate moments. It is refreshing to be in such a reactive environment, and the show certainly satisfies its Christmas brief by inspiring audible joy. Unfortunately, there appears to be a little too much nostalgia for the Shrek frachise, with Pierre paralleling Donkey’s hyperbolic exuberance at every turn and the strong female lead carrying a bit too much of Princess Fiona. It’s not quite a negative; Nouveau-Shakespearean theatre is a lot more palatable for family audiences when comic relief is continuously supplied and the spangles of Disney-esque joy fall from the trees.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the show is in the incongruity of contemporary and traditional elements that boast the potential for political commentary, but fall flat in their lack of plausibility. Marion’s absent father, busy fighting the ‘Muslim enemy’ in a “faraway war that seems to make less and less sense to him”, represents one such attempt. Infusing modern malaise into an old, insular narrative saps the story of historical context and appears just a tad gimmicky.
Importantly, what the show loses in attempting to feed contemporary adult viewers, it gains back in its ability to please the young and young at heart.