ROBIN HOOD: THE LEGEND. RE-WRITTEN at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre
“The performances are uniformly strong, joyful, silly and skilful”
Everyone has their own favourite image of Robin Hood, whether it be Kevin Costner, Jason Connery, Russell Crowe (really?); or the Disney rendition. Or a camp pantomime outlaw in green tights. Carl Grose has taken three of those archetypes and has them gate-crash his alternative – and quite eccentric – version of the legend. The device is an embodiment of the quirky humour that, unlike the sleight of hand archery skills on display, often misses its target.
Part of the problem is that nobody, including Grose, seems to know where the target is. You can’t see the wood for the trees in this overgrown Sherwood Forest where tangled brambles of offbeat ideas lie in wait like thorny catch weed. You don’t need to wade too far in to get lost. Or frustrated enough to want to turn back. Tax collectors in hi vis jackets delight at relieving commoners of their bow fingers. Fingers which, no less, end up in a casket the sheriff keeps hidden away, occasionally lifting the lid to allow the dismembered digits to prophesise to him in squeaky voices. We are in a pretty slaughterous world where scarlet blood puddles and muddles the greenery. Where fact, fiction, myth and legend collide at the whim of an insurgent history teacher on acid.
The opening moments are magical, the scene set by the Balladeer (Nandi Bhebhe; velvet voiced and spellbinding). The landscape is borrowed from Jez Butterworth’s ‘Jerusalem’ as the mystical atmosphere swiftly morphs into a kind of ‘state of the nation’ play. “Who owns England?”, the downtrodden ask. Sheriff Baldwyn (a commanding performance from Alex Mugnaioni) keeps the King in a permanent state of befuddlement by spiking his tea in order to have free reign to be as dastardly as can be. Paul Hunter’s portrayal of the king is a masterclass in comic buffoonery, while still conveying that this hapless monarch knows much more than he is letting on.
Chiara Stephenson’s split-level set crudely separates the two classes, but there is plenty of social mobility. Not least the sheriff’s grog-guzzling wife, Marian (Ellen Robertson – in fine, playful form). We are never quite sure of her motives, but her disdain of, and possibly guilt over, her privilege drives her to extremes of disguise, the likes of which would be far too big a spoiler to reveal here. An ensemble troupe of Merry Men (excuse the Olde Worlde gender reference) create the required mayhem to subvert the established order. Apparently, it all started with a plan to build a new road, putting much of the forest at risk. A rather throwaway shuffle onto the environmentalist bandwagon, but I guess Grose felt the need.
The performances are uniformly strong, joyful, silly and skilful. It must have been a task, but director Melly Still guides the company through the mayhem with a steady hand. For the most part. At interval, the lawns are littered with bemused expressions heading for solace at the bar. It is short lived. The second act gets jaw-droppingly bizarre as we become lost in a sea of abdications, beheadings and resurrections. In the spirit of true farce, some ends are tied up, but no matter how hard we try the disjointed fragments of this production never really meet in our minds. The theatrical trickery has to be admired (Ira Mandela Siobhan is compelling as the conjuring but doomed villain, Gisburne) but the overall journey is unnavigated. Lost in the forest, left to make it up as it goes along.
As the sun sets and a crescent moon hangs above Regent’s Park, we file out into the night wondering if what we have just seen really did come from the same writer who penned “Dead Dog in a Suitcase” and “The Grinning Man”. The tagline in the PR blurb pronounces “Think you know the story of Robin Hood? Think again!”. It promises revelation, but the question remains the same as we leave the theatre.
Reviewed on 23rd June 2023
by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Pamela Raith
Previously reviewed at this venue: