Reviews

Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre – review

The hooded figure gets a whimsical new take in the open air

Alex Mugnaioni (Baldwyn) and Paul Hunter (The King), © Pamela Raith
Alex Mugnaioni (Baldwyn) and Paul Hunter (The King), © Pamela Raith

The enchantment of Regents Park, the bold artistic choices characteristic of a production at the Open Air Theatre, and the specifically English folk tale of Robin Hood, the outlaw of Sherwood Forest… surely the recipe for an evening of swashbuckling midsummer magic, right? Er…no, actually.

One of the biggest problems of Carl Grose and Melly Still’s Robin Hood: The Legend – Re-written (and there are several) is that it can’t decide who it’s aimed at. It’s too gory for young children, too boring for older kids, and too puerile for adults. In just over two hours, we get amputations, a blinding, a decapitation, Monty Python-esque comedy, “spirit of the forest” mumbo jumbo, anachronistic musical numbers (that bizarre 1970s pop ditty “Chirpy Chirpy Cheep Cheep” crops up at one point for no particular reason), magic mushroom-induced hallucinations (although, arguably, the whole overlong show feels like some sort of drug-induced fever dream), and way too many moments where it feels like the creative team are hurling everything at the wall to see what sticks.

Unfortunately for them, but mostly for us in the audience, not very much does. There are gigantic puppet-like costume creations, tiny sleight-of-hand illusions, comedy that teeters constantly on the brink of high camp but never quite commits, shouty acting, slo-mo movement, a perpetually revolving stage and, heaven help us all, interpretive dance. The idea of a feminist retelling of the Robin Hood story, deconstructing the legend and concentrating on the idea that Marian is actually the rabble-rousing, wrong-righting marks-person whilst married to the venal, elitist Sheriff, is a very good one, and there are moments during the first half of Still’s edgy but frustratingly messy production where it really looks as though we are in for something refreshing and anachronistic.

Sadly though, the whole thing gets mired in a morass of half-finished ideas (the iconic screen Hoods of Errol Flynn – The Adventures of Robin Hood, Kevin Costner – Robin, Prince of Thieves, and Michael Praed – Robin of Sherwood, are impersonated by hard working actors to pitifully small comic pay-off), unfocused, confused storytelling, and a thudding score that marries Enya-style ethereality to the sort of club music that gets played near closing time when they’re desperate for everyone to get off the dancefloor and go home. At one point, the cast even whistle the George Bruns theme from the 1973 Disney animated film. I’m not sure it’s wise to be invoking these earlier iterations of this same story, as it runs the risk of forcibly reminding the audience how much better, or at least coherent, all those other versions actually were.

Grose’s script veers unevenly between portentous, sub-Shakespearean exposition and throwaway humour, but floats a couple of intriguing ideas, particularly the notion of the whole Robin Hood legend being more of a cultish collective movement or tribe, rather than a single individual. Giving Ellen Robertson’s flinty, androgynous Marian a drink problem is a bizarre but interesting choice, although the booze doesn’t seem to interfere with her unerring bow-and-arrow skills (don’t try this at home, kids).

Given the glade-like setting of this venue, one might have expected a production of Robin Hood to lean heavily into that aesthetic, but that’s not the case here. Chiara Stephenson’s split level set looks resolutely inorganic, a raised square platform surrounded by metallic, cage-like towers filled with rocks, and bisected by long spiderweb-like strands. Samuel Wyer’s costumes mix styles and periods but the overriding impression is of a medieval-themed S & M party. If it doesn’t quite make visual sense, at least there’s plenty of striking to things to look at while you’re trying to work out what the heck is going on.

The cast are committed and energetic, and a couple of them make strong individual impressions. Robertson is an imposing presence as Marian, and Alex Mugnaioni wrings some welcome sardonic comedy out of her slimy, alarmingly bonkers other half. Ira Mandela Siobhan brings a tormented malevolence and a graceful, liquid physicality to the psychotic warrior knight Gisburne. Dumile Sibanda is excellent as the grief-stricken young revolutionary whose subplot is the engine that drives the main story, and gives the evening what heart it has.

Ultimately, this is a real disappointment and a rare misfire for this venue. It’s ponderous where it should be magical, and desperately lacking in purpose and clarity. Not since Lionel Bart’s disastrous 1965 West End musical Twang! have Robin and his merry band of Lincoln green-clad rebels been so theatrically ill-served.

 

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