Review: The Heart of Robin Hood, RST, Stratford-on-Avon ****

This year, at their Christmas show, the RSC has thrown practically the entire theatrical alphabet; aerialists, bouffon, cross-dressing, dry-ice, through to puppetry (of a kind), snow and even a water feature.  Thankfully The Heart of Robin Hood disarms and enchants where such a display might have seemed leery.  Although it is transparently hoping to captivate a younger audience, there is enough, just, to hold the attention of the adults.

There is a gorgeous element of creative anarchy to the proceedings, while rooting the entire festive concoction in a deliciously English tradition of pantomime and, yes, Shakespeare.  This marriage of form and content is no doubt due to the combination of British writer David Farr, Associate Director of the RSC, and Icelandic director Gisli Örn Gardarsson.

With characters dropping in from the rafters, popping up from the depths and sliding in on an enormous slide, the staging is oftentimes hilariously inventive and refreshingly modern.  Farr’s take on the story places Marion at its centre, played with verve and spunk by Iris Roberts.  Roberts’ performance is a recognisable modern Disney heroine, feisty and gamine, a role model little girls will want to be and little boys will want to be friends with.  Farr cleverly uses this juxtaposition to weave a magical tale of redemption for Robin Hood, confused, in classic Shakespearean mode, by his attraction to both Marion and her alter-ego Martin of Sherwood. Dashing and athletic, James McArdle plays the eponymous anti-hero, who learns that the love of a decent woman can be redemptive.  Hood comes good.

Comedy is provided by an amiable Fool in Ólafur Darri Ólafsson’s Pierre, but it is Martin Hutson who provides the crack of the whip, stealing the show as a Machiavellian Prince John, camping it up deliciously and terrifyingly as the dark heart of the piece.

Gruesome touches to thrill the children, some pleasing modern political references to appease adults and some breathtakingly beautiful moments of physical dexterity

With elements of folklore, a sub-plot of two children sentenced to death, a marriage to be averted, and the cross-dressing confusion, alongside references to King Lear, Twelfth Night, Titus Andronicus, Hansel & Gretel and even a nod to Spiderman, Farr has shoehorned in so many strands of narrative, over such a time period, that it is difficult to feel that Robin and Marion have ever got to know each other, let alone fallen in love, but along the way there are enough gruesome touches to thrill the children, some pleasing modern political references to appease adults and some breathtakingly beautiful moments of physical dexterity.

The relentless energy of the piece is underscored by Högni Egilsson’s music, and Börkur Jonsson’s set is beautifully lit by Björn Helgason.  While the RSC’s Matilda obliterates all festive fare in London, this inventive riot of magic and Disney will entrance all those who see it.  Christmas belongs to the RSC.

**** (4 stars)
Runs until Jan 7th 2012
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