The Heart Of Robin Hood – January 2012

10/10

By David Farr

Directed by Gisli Örn Gardarsson

Venue: RST

Date: Wednesday 4th January 2012

This was a fantastic Christmas show for kids of all ages! Written by David Farr, the story was based on the Yorkshire version of Robin Hood, back before he became a good-looking defender of the poor in revealing tights. Admittedly this Robin was also good looking, but his leather trousers weren’t as revealing as tights, and at the start of the story he’s not remotely interested in giving anything to the poor at all. It’s only through the intervention of Marion, or Martin of Sherwood as she became, that his heart began to open and he turned into the hero we’ve been led to expect in recent years. There was a post-show chat (naturally) and I’ve included some of the comments from that in my description below.

David Farr brought in a creative team from Iceland to help him realise his ideas on the main Stratford stage. This was an excellent choice. Börkur Jonsson designed an amazing set which really contributed to the physicality and magic of the performance. At the back was a steeply sloping wall of artificial grass, which came down in the region of the old proscenium arch. It had several sections within it which could be lowered to form platforms which represented various bits of the castle, and there were also holes through which several heads appeared for the cathedral scene – more on that story later. Above the stage hung the branches of a mighty oak; mighty scary to sit in, apparently, especially when the artificial snow made the branches wet! But these actors are tougher than they look, except for the excellent actor, also Icelandic, who played Pierre, the clown character. They had planned to set the opening scene actually in the branches, but apart from realising that the actors were hard to see up there, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson (Darri) has a greater affinity for solid ground, and as he opens the play, that was that as far as Pierre was concerned.

The rest of the stage, the walkways and even the steps up to the stage in front, were all covered in artificial grass. There was a pond to the right of centre stage, with a few tufts of grass masking it from our view. The water tank wasn’t that deep, we were told later, but although the water was warm at the start, it got very cold by the end, so poor Alice, who spends lots of time in there in the final scene, ended up shivering and wanting the rest of the cast to hurry up and finish. The surface of the stage was all lumpy – god knows how there weren’t more accidents, although they did say there had been a few during the run. (The main problem seemed to be friction burns when they were learning how to slide down the grassy slope in the first few weeks.) Apart from all of this, there were at least a couple of trapdoors, one to the left of the stage, and another in the front right corner – they’re making good use of the excellent resources they have in their new theatre – and lots of ropes everywhere for vertical entrances and exits.

The performance style was really interesting. It’s a darker piece than I expected for a family show, but they kept it light through massive amounts of humour all the way through. Of course the kids loved the yucky bits, such as a tongue being cut out and waved around a lot, and given the nature of children’s stories through the ages, this wasn’t going to give them any nightmares. But there were also bits for us ‘grown-ups’ to enjoy, such as the reference to Jaws – a shark’s fin crossing the pond while the music played – and even a reference to Malvolio in Twelfth Night when Prince John is being taken away at the end and says “I’ll have my revenge on every one of you”. But mostly the humour crossed the age boundaries and gave us all a lot of fun. One of my favourite scenes was the puppetry session, with the recently deceased Guy of Gisborne (Tim Treloar) being manipulated by Little John to have a silent (on his part) conversation with Prince John. It was a masterpiece of movement, with a final rude gesture to the departing Prince causing a lot of laughter.

The play opened with Pierre introducing himself to us, and framing the story as an explanation of how he, a posh servant with fancy clothes and meringue-styled hair, had come to be a country lover with simple tastes. Pierre is the servant of Marion, daughter of the Duke of York who is away in the Holy Land, helping King Richard on crusade. She’s just received a letter from her father which says he’s going to be another year at least, and with her guardian wanting to marry her off, and Prince John due to visit the castle, she decides to head off into the forest and seek out Robin Hood. She may be a sensible sort of tomboy, but she still has romantic notions about the man, thinking he’s a noble outlaw who steals from the rich to give to the poor. We’ve already seen him stealing from a couple of rich folk, the very folk who bring Marion the letter from her father, and Robin showed no sign of helping anyone but himself. When Marion finds him, she realises the mistake she’s made, and leaves the forest temporarily. However, when she nears the castle, her sister finds her and delivers the news that Prince John has arrived and wants to see Marion straightaway. Knowing that he intends to make her his bride, she dons a disguise and returns to the forest as Martin of Sherwood, determined to be the noble outlaw she believed Robin Hood to be, by stealing from the rich to help the poor.

Thwarted in his ambition to meet his future bride, Prince John isn’t too pleased. He’s in the area for more than his wedding, though – his men are out collecting the Holy Contribution, which the Prince says is to help his brother in the Holy Land. Not all the locals are happy with this extra tax burden, and one man, Robert Summers, is actively speaking out against it. To make an example, he and his two children are arrested; after he is hanged, his son is made to proclaim his own father a bad person, and not only support the Holy Contribution, but even express his devotion to Prince John himself. Of course, young Jethro Summers only does it to save his sister, Sarah, but their future is anything but secure.

Meanwhile, back in the forest, and after a few weeks of Martin’s new rob-the-rich-feed-the-poor regime, Robin and his men are finding it hard to rob anyone, as all the carriages passing through the forest have already been picked clean. This is an affront to their territorial rights as outlaws, so they disguise themselves as rich travellers to smoke out their competitor. When Martin (with Pierre, who’s now called Peter) tries to rob them, they reveal themselves, and Martin realises she’s taken on more than she can handle. When Robin and his men insist that Martin and Peter strip naked so they can steal their clothes, Martin is terrified that she’ll be discovered, and makes a rash gamble. She bets her clothes that she can beat one of them in a fight, and loses. Despite this, she’s still determined not to give herself away, so she proposes another bet, with the stake this time being her life. Robin accepts, and after an even harder struggle, she’s beaten again. Before he can execute her, though, a peasant woman arrives, asking for her help to rescue the two Summers children who are being held in the castle.

For the first time, with two children’s lives at risk, even Robin’s men are keen to help somebody other than themselves. Robin just wants to get on with the execution, but the pleas from all and sundry make him rethink, especially when Martin claims to know a way to get into the castle. When Jethro had made his false proclamation to save his sister, the executioner who had been summoned to convey the explicit threat, is ordered away again. Only it isn’t the real executioner, it’s Robin Hood, and his men are with him. After a big fight, they rescue the children and escape back to the forest, leaving Prince John fuming.

There was a short scene which in the text was meant to be the Duke of York, Marion’s father, speaking a message to Marion to tell her that Prince John is planning an uprising, and that he’s on his way to prevent it. He tells her to do all she can to delay things until he gets there. In performance, it was done by her guardian, Makepeace, reading the letter that’s arrived for her, and naturally being disturbed by the news. Rather rashly, he confronts John in a later scene, and this leads to his tongue being cut out by Gisborne, Prince John’s right hand psychopath, and as nasty a piece of work as the Prince himself, if not nastier.

In the forest, however, Martin ends up chatting to Robin about his no women in the forest policy. She discovers that he did meet a woman, once, who was different to all the rest, and it’s clear he means Marion herself. Unfortunately, she’s in no position to reveal herself to him, but she does a short while later, to the dog, Plug. She doesn’t realise that Sarah has been listening until she turns around and sees her standing there. Sarah hasn’t spoken since her father’s death though, so her secret’s pretty safe, for now.

Gisborne, on John’s orders, has inflamed the locals to hunt down and kill the demonically possessed children. At the same time Alice, the Duke of York’s other daughter, is out in the forest looking for her sister when she’s surprised by the outlaw band. Marion, still disguised as Martin, gets into an argument with her and the others let her get on with it, but it soon turns out they’re all in deep trouble. The townsfolk have them surrounded, and are coming for the children. Marion realises her only chance of saving them is to return to the castle as herself and persuade Prince John to spare their lives; she doesn’t actually spell it out, but we can see what she’s planning.

Back at the castle, she discovers that Makepeace has lost his tongue, and he helps her to get changed into a posh frock. Prince John is delighted to see her; although he’s not keen on women having a say in any important matter, he is swayed by her request for the children’s lives to be spared as a gift to his new bride. Despite her revulsion, she goes along with the Prince’s wishes, even though he’s already set their wedding date for Christmas day, only three days away! In the forest, with the children captured, Gisborne comes to the rescue just in time with the order from Prince John. Apparently the demons in the children can be removed by a spot of holy water shaken onto them, which Gisborne does, reciting some Latin as he does so. The “expelliamus” which this line started with was an entertaining reference to Harry Potter. Gisborne’s expression was less than delighted – murdering children isn’t just another job for him, it’s a real vocation – but he lets Robin take the children with him, as he has no orders to prevent it.

With only three days to go till the wedding, there’s a lot to do. Most importantly, Marion has to be shriven so that she can be pure on her wedding day. For this reason, she has to visit the Cathedral and meet with the Bishop. In the forest, Robin and his men are getting very worried about Martin – there’s been no sign of him since he left on his secret mission to stop the children being killed. When Much brings the news of the impending marriage between Prince John and Marion, both Pierre and Robin are appalled, though they try to cover up their concern. To help Marion, Pierre suggests they try to rescue Martin, and Robin actually agrees immediately. Pierre is left behind to take care of the children, and the others head off to the castle.

In the Cathedral, the Bishop’s face is peeking through the central hole in the ramp, with one hand sticking out of each side hole, several feet away! He’s hearing confessions, and the first three who come in are obviously Much, Will and Little John. Robin is next, and his confession is for a sin he’s about to do, i.e. replace the Bishop so he can talk with Marion. Once he’s done this, it’s his face peering through the central hole in the back wall, with two hands appearing at the side holes. His men don wimples and look out through two other holes which appeared higher up and to each side, and when Little John joins in, his hole is below Robin’s. (Do behave.)

Marion’s ‘confession’ was more a chat about Martin, and how Robin could get him out of the castle. They arranged something – didn’t catch all the details – and then Prince John returned to take her away. In the meantime, Gisborne has attempted to capture the children, and although he hasn’t managed that, Pierre has lost them as well, and is in despair. The children are wandering through the forest, and come across the Green Man, who descends on a rope and gives them three wishes. The first was for food, which they’d already eaten. The second was to see their father; their father appeared again and walked over to the front of the stage where a woman was doing some rope work. I realised it was their mother before the Green Man identified her. Jethro’s third wish was for Sarah to speak again – not in the Green Man’s power to grant.

When Robin returned to the forest, he discovered Pierre on his own, and realised that he hadn’t taken enough care of the children. Gisborne also turns up and Robin kills him, which gives him the idea for how to get into the castle. They turn up at the castle gates, with Robin apparently killed and hanging upside down, while Much and Will are off to one side, apparently tied up. This was where Gisborne did his puppet routine, and very funny it was too. Of course, Marion is very upset because she believes what she sees, but when she approaches the ‘corpse’ she learns the truth.

It’s looking good for her escape now, as all she has to do is a quick change into Martin’s clothes and be off with Robin. But unfortunately Alice turns up and spoils the whole thing, calling for the guards. With Robin recaptured, properly this time, Martin goes to fetch Marion, who does her best to save Robin. John isn’t feeling so friendly this time, though, and actually slaps her for suggesting he spare Robin’s life. Nasty.

Fortunately, Pierre has managed a bit of robbery on his own. He steals Lord something-or-other’s identity, and by pretending to be on John’s side, gets the guard in charge of the prisoners to give him his gun and then the keys, enabling him to free Robin and his men. During the wedding, when the bishop asks if anyone knows of any reason, etc., Sarah finally speaks again, and tells everyone that Marion is actually in love with another man. John is busy trying to get back to the wedding ceremnoy, but when he calls in the soldiers to take the girl away, who should they be but Robin, Much and Will! Big fight, a very big fight. Alice ends up in the pond (described as the font in the text), and Robin, Marion and the others defeat the Prince of Evil just before the Duke of York turns up to arrest him. Despite Robin’s complete lack of social status, the Duke bows to the inevitable (he clearly knows his daughter well) and accepts Robin as his future son-in-law. Given their history, the only place for the wedding is in the forest, so they all head off there. At the very end, Alice suddenly sticks her head up out of the pond, clambers out, and realising we’re all looking at her, smoothes back her hair and starts to preen herself on the way out, no easy task as she’s dripping wet and only has one shoe on. A very funny ending.

That’s just the basics of the story, an amazing amount to cram in, but they did it so well and so fast that we took it all in and the time just flew by. There was a lot of humour in the performance, and a lot of music, with many of the cast playing instruments as well as acting, throwing themselves down the ramp, etc, occasionally at the same time! The animals were particularly good, with an actor and a musical instrument combining to represent the various creatures. For example, there was a white duck which was one of the actresses done up in a white tutu affair and playing a clarinet(?) waddling across the stage. She was very flexible – squatting and walking at the same time isn’t easy. This was during a scene with Prince John talking to either Makepeace or Gisborne. The Prince tried to shoot the duck, but it ducked out of sight down one of the trapdoors each time, so he missed. The other character kept handing the Prince another loaded gun, so he had several goes, but we were glad the duck got the better of him and survived. Actually, Steve thought the white bird was a swan (we were in Stratford, after all) while I thought it was a goose. We were able to get the correct identification afterwards.

There was also a boar which attacked the children in the forest; this was an actor with a cello, and after they killed the boar – a brave act by young Jethro – they kept the cello while the actor slipped off stage, and roasted it over a fire. All of this was very evocative, but the best of all was the performance of Plug the dog (Peter Bray). Similar to Crab in The Two Gentlemen Of Verona during the RSC Complete Works Festival, Jethro’s dog was played by an actor, who used a woodwind instrument (possibly an oboe?) to make the dog noises. He was great fun, cocking his leg at the audience, and generally being a regular dog. Of course he snarled at the baddies and bit Gisborne, and we all loved him enormously.

There were too many good bits to record them all, but I’ll just mention a few extra funny moments. There was the wonderful way Pierre said “We!” when Marion was talking about how “we” could go to the forest, etc. It was a lovely performance all the way through by Darri, and I do hope they can cast him in something else in the future – he’d make a great Falstaff. And when Marion first met Robin in the forest, his men were all off stage, but Little John, played by a very short actor, Michael Walter, rose up through the trapdoor on the left as she was saying “you and your merry…”. She paused, looking at him, and then finished the line with “man”. Very funny. When Marion first appears as Martin, she’s spotted by Prince John, who chats to her for a bit. She ends up with a limp, thanks to a contribution from Pierre, and the Prince ends up believing her attitudes towards women are entirely in tune with his own. He’s almost overcome at one point – it’s so rare for him to find anyone who understands his point of view. Apparently David Farr allowed the actors free rein to embellish the characters themselves, and Martin Hutson, as Prince John, certainly brought out the Prince’s inner psychopath very clearly. Alice (Flora Montgomery) was also very funny, being completely obsessed with appearance and social status. She’d have been more than happy to marry Prince John herself, but he did have some standards.

The rest of the cast all did a good job too, and the whole production was really entertaining. It didn’t matter that the fight scenes were a bit confusing, that I couldn’t make out all of the dialogue, nor that there was a lot of chatter from young voices to contend with; it was such good fun, and had so much energy all the way through, that I totally enjoyed myself. And from the enthusiastic questions from the youngsters afterwards at the post-show, so had they.

© 2012 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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