Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon
Opened 1 December, 2011
In this season of Christmassy theatrical fare (and also of what one might call alt.xmas shows), one feature that disappoints all too often is the attempt to update, relocate or otherwise jazz up one of the traditional tales. Modernising the story itself can seem too worthy, trying to make the fun more contemporary in style too laboured. And sometimes even deadlier is "returning the tale to its authentic roots".
These are the reefs which David Farr has chosen to navigate with his version of the Robin Hood story. On the one hand, he strips away the romanticism of Robin the outlawed nobleman who gives his booty to the poor; this Robin is a commoner and a simple robber, although he acquires higher feelings and motives as the tale progresses. On the other, the real focus of Farr's version is Marion, a daring and self-willed woman who teaches Robin that he has a heart. And, since this is an RSC production, Shakespearean devices and allusions are rife. Marion goes from her castle into exile in the forest, disguised as a young man, with a clown for company, ŕ la As You Like It; there is a long, dark night in the woods (though not a Midsummer Night), with confusion, much crossing of paths and even a supernatural presence (really, throwing the Green Man archetype gratuitously into the mix is just excessive); and when his wicked plans are thwarted, Prince John's final line, "I shall be revenged on every single one of you!", is almost verbatim Malvolio's exit line in Twelfth Night. This is the kind of Bard-buffs' fun which tries too hard for it ever to actually feel like fun.
Gísli Örn Garđarsson's production keeps things lively, though, with his trademark aerialism on ropes, ribbons and up and down the enormous slide which forms the back wall of Börkur Jonsson's set. Iris Roberts is a spirited Marion, James McArdle allows Robin not to be too likeable, Little John actually is little for once (Michael Walter being a person of restricted growth), and as Pierre the clown, amongst many other enjoyable moments Ólafur Darri Ólafsson gives us the rare experience of hearing an Icelander playing a Frenchman exclaim in broad Yorkshire, "Bloody Nora!" Garđarsson and his cast supply the vitality which Farr's script strives for but ultimately only mimics.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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