“A forest is owned by no man”
I don’t have any memory of booking The Heart of Robin Hood at all! But sometime late in November I did indeed book it and failed to put it in my calendar – I may well have been drunk, I most definitely was tired! – and it was only The Trainline sending me a reminder about the train journey that alerted me to what I should be indeed be doing this Thursday afternoon.
The most impressive thing about the production, that is evident from the off, is Börkur Jonsson’s set design which has to rank as one of the most inventive uses of a thrust stage ever. A huge branch of a tree is suspended above a wide green swathe of astroturf which slopes from on high at the back of the stage, down into the auditorium. Thus the forest of Sherwood is evoked, with platforms and sections peeling back to suggest the castle of the nobles. It really is an ingenious piece of staging, endlessly delightful in the constant little reveals and surprises it came up with and even in the sheer fun of seeing people slide down into view from the top.
With a set so full of creative opportunity, it is clear that Gisli Örn Gardarsson wanted a company that would be able to fully engage with his playful, physical aesthetic. And that is what has been assembled here as cast members tumble down from the sky, hang upside down on ropes for whole scenes, get plunged into pools, imitate animals, leap gracefully from platforms and clamber up the grassy verge with boundless enthusiasm. I loved the energy with which the cast conducted themselves, it felt entirely appropriate for a family show though some of the stuffier stalwarts of the audience in front of me weren’t quite so keen on getting snowed on or a bit wet!
As the first figure onstage, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson’s bumptious bear Pierre was a delightful character of great warmth – I did initially think he’d be narrating the whole show but thankfully he soon returned back into the company – and he provided much of the comic relief of the show. Iris Roberts’ makes a spirited Marion, who seizes the opportunity to escape her intended nuptials to the nefarious Prince John – Martin Hutson in delightful form – by running off to the forest to join Robin Hood’s lawless band of bandits. When she sees that he’s no stuff of legends but rather just a petty thief – James McArdle playing the part of the handsome but morally questionable Robin very well – she disguises herself as Martin of Sherwood and sets about doing good in the forest thereby becoming the real focus of the play. Tim Treloar’s menacing Guy of Gisbourne and Flora Montgomery’s selfish Alice were also good fun, and there was a nice deal of brawny shirtlessness for the shallow-minded amongst us though rightly, it never felt sexualised to me.
But for all the joys of the production, the play itself never really grabbed me. Weirdly, the story reminded me a bit more of Peter Pan than Robin Hood as we know it, David Farr’s revisionist approach forming a prequel of sorts and to my mind overplaying the Shakespearean allusions. The writing felt soggy at times, lacking the thrust I would have expected from a family show, though it must be said the children near me in the audience seemed largely engaged. So a mixed bag for me and I’m not 100% sure it was worth the effort of a trip to Stratford in the final analysis. And last but not least, I know you’re supposed to let your imagination run away with it, but a man crawling about and playing a clarinet does not a dog make!