'Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written.' review – laudable in principle, but this revamp is a muddled polemic

Read our review of Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written, the latest production in Regent's Park Open Air Theatre's season, in performances to 22 July.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

You might think there’s consciousness-raising aplenty embedded in the Robin Hood heroics of robbing from the rich to give to the poor. But not nearly enough, clearly, for the playwright Carl Grose. As the second show in Regent’s Park’s summer season, Grose has fashioned anew this often-told tale so that it is indeed “re-written,” though to the dubious advantage of all concerned.

The aim would seem to be to import to the outdoor realms of the Open Air Theatre some of the anger of plays like Alice Birch’s first-rate, and comparably titled, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. But the result, entirely laudable in principle, doesn’t work in practice.

Onetime Tony nominee Melly Still’s production is so wavering in tone, and its underlying polemic so predictable, that you eventually tune out – as, presumably, did quite a few playgoers who were seen exiting during the performance.

The Sherwood Forest on view here consists of rather beautiful-looking cylindrical trees – metal sculptures, really – giving shape to Chiara Stephenson’s two-tiered set that is itself a visual correlative to the unjust society. Its turntable would as easily serve the dispossessed community of Les Mis, the enemy occupying the stationary world above.

The embodiment of the prevailing scourge is Alex Mugnaioni’s shouty Baldwyn, the swaggering sheriff who boasts a disbelieving cackle worthy of a Disney villain and a fearsome henchman, Gisburne (played by Ira Mandela Siobhan, a memorably lithe presence in the Equus revival a few years ago).

Atop the set are those who rule by dictatorial fiat. Those below are “hanging by [their] nails to survive” in an England in which the basic tenets of ownership are themselves a fraud. England’s green and pleasant land in fact belongs to all, including, we’re told, the royal parks – one of which happens to be this show’s current home: talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

As for the long-established rule of the barons on view, forget it. They’re about as relevant to the world of Grose’s play as many would argue the House of Lords to be just now. At least our modern-day leaders aren’t (yet, anyway) calling for people’s tongues to be cut out and keeping trunks full of severed fingers – that last image, seen spilling across the stage floor, feels on loan from a Martin McDonagh play.

You’re aware throughout of Grose’s concordance with current events, not least the sheriff’s call for public protest to be outlawed and the fiery resistance of those like Betty (Stephanie Fayerman) who warns those in authority to “never relax.”

The engine of the play is discontent within the ranks and the feeling amongst this stratified society’s so-called outlaws that their leaders are the ones who should be outlawed. It’s little surprise that the rather forlorn, bedraggled king (Paul Hunter) keeps checking he still has a title, his fondness for phrases like “once upon a time” a reminder that the narrative keeps at least one foot in the realm of fable.

The play proffers multiple Robin Hoods, one of whom comes bounding along as if from the silver screen. The surprise of sorts comes from the play’s handing of the spiritual Robin Hood of the piece to the sheriff’s seemingly indrawn wife, Marian (a rather wan Ellen Robertson), who operates by stealth: “I work best silent.” She would appear, too, to be the last of her line, given that children in her view are “overrated.”

The second act suggests Jerusalem-lite in its view of an England alive with a vibrant fairy world and an essential, undying natural spirit embodied here by a soulful Nandi Bhebhe, the narrator figure who undergoes various iterations along the way. It’s not this gifted actor’s fault that at the performance I saw, Jenny Moore’s original score had to compete with the ambient soundscape beyond the theatre itself, amid which numerous other musical selections could be heard in the park at large – some more appropriate to Robin Hood than others.

Characters like Little Joan and Mary Tuck attest to a sense of playfulness with the original source that the production could use more of. In the end, this reinvention exists in limbo between send-up and sanctimony, a clever exercise in theory that is enervating to watch.

Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written is at Regent's Park Open Air Theatre through 22 July. Book Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Robin Hood: The Legend. Re-written (Photo by Pamela Raith)

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