The story of England’s Robin Hood, according to historical accounts, goes as potentially far back as 1261. The underdog narrative appealed to us as children, and will continue to enthrall posterity with its equality-for-all tale, which begins with reapportioning wealth from the affluent to give to the destitute. With ample swashbuckling, bows and arrows, a formidable adversary, and a forbidden love story to boot, Robin Hood touches on and excels at fleshing out many themes.
The allegory is still as relevant as ever with the inclusion of “The Heart of Robin Hood,” which debuted at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011-12, and can now be seen at The Wallis in Beverly Hills, CA, through December 17th. Written by David Farr, and directed by Gisli Örn Gardarsson and Selma Björnsdóttir, the production adds new wrinkles to the well-known legend. It particularly focuses on how Robin Hood (and his merry band), who was at once raffish and unsympathetic, becomes a changed man via his love for Marion (who also empoweringly proves her mettle as “Martin of Sherwood”). This culminates in the preemption of Prince John’s scheme, who intends to marry Marion, and the prioritization of the well-being of the common folk thereafter.
The first thing one notices about this play is Börkur Jónsson’s scenic expanse, which, in conjunction with the lighting design by Ken Billington and Ed McCarthy, has created an entrancingly immersive experience. It includes the verdant trees and foliage of the Sherwood forest, an oft-used actual pond and bottomless pit, the use of ceiling-affixed ropes, and a 20-foot hillside slide where the characters descend from and nimbly move around. Impressively, the steep hill-slide also becomes a castle embankment featuring a pair of walk-on drawbridges during scenes depicting royalty.
As conflicts play out with intense ferocity on stage, the fight direction by Joe Bostic is especially highlighted by arrayed acrobatics; sword, ax, and flail combat; somersault spin-kicks (for which performer Moe Alafrangy deserves much credit); and a certain majestic quality to the violence that is almost Cirque du Soleil-like throughout. To this end, there are even musical interludes that are written and led by Icelandic pop and rap star, Salka Sól, whose textured and sweetly melancholic voice beautifully captures the ambiance of what a contemporary story about Robin Hood would feel and sound like. Sól, who is joined by Hugo Fowler (guitar), Jake Justice (piano), Tennyson Morin (double bass), and Jeff Verghies (drums), is also an astounding multi-instrumentalist, who manages to simultaneously play the trumpet and accordion at one point.
Luke Forbes is the intrepid Robin Hood, the honorable warrior with origins as a thieving rogue, who then gradually shows signs of turning around his motivations for the greater good. In demonstrating this, Forbes has a focused and charismatic intensity with regard to his persona that offers an underlying capacity for scrupulousness even when Hood is no more than a hoodlum. Robin Hood is flanked by equally resourceful and combative men, including ones who might initially be more understanding and reasonable than he himself is. Little John (Jeremy Crawford), Will Scarlett (Sam Meader), and Much Miller (Kasey Mahaffy) are all infectiously pugnacious, who, as a collective support system to Hood’s leadership, identify their purpose by going from strays of Mother Nature to its sentinels.
Marion, played by Christina Bennett Lind, is the daughter of the Duke of York (portrayed by the funny and versatile Ian Merrigan), and agent of change responsible for chipping away the figurative protective shield around Hood’s heart. Lind is spellbindingly courageous as both Marion and her embattled vigilante alter ego, “Martin,” who symbolizes what Hood should aspire to. Interestingly, “Martin” is originally fashioned as a blind and limping soldier as a necessity to fool and avoid detection from Prince John (Eirik Del Barco Soleglad). This exchange lends many laughs amid the suspense, as Soleglad’s John, who is devilishly conniving and hysterically awkward, echoes how much he “likes” Lind’s forthright “Martin.” Nonetheless, this scene, along with others of its kind with John’s top henchman, Guy of Gisborne (menacingly played by Patrick Woodall, who is ironically in one of the most humorous scenes), previews the dastardliness of the adversaries, and in turn, the grit involved to overcome them.
Alice, Marion’s younger and desperate-to-marry sister, is played charmingly by Sarah Hunt, who isn’t afraid to go to valiant lengths for the audience members’ entertainment (which also includes interacting with them). Furthermore, Pierre, Marion’s right-hand man and jester is taken on by Daniel Franzese, who contributes to most of the lighthearted mirth in the show. Franzese is delightfully memorable as Pierre for not only being a colorful presence, but appropriately and ostentatiously oblivious to the severity of his surroundings. A great example of this is when, as all the other brawny characters are lying down to rest in the Sherwood forest at the close of Act I, Franzese’s Pierre, or rather alter ego “Peter,” is very carefully brushing his teeth and applying facial cream. Yet, as uproarious as Pierre is, he is also thoughtful in how he introduces and ends the narrative – about how he finds himself just as Robin Hood finds his heart and path to fulfillment.
“The Heart of Robin Hood” — which also features on-point performances by Patrick De Ledebur, Paige Herschell, Lize Johnston, Leonard Kelly-Young, as well as the precocious Gavin Lewis and Lily Rose Silver (the brave children whose lives are endangered by Prince John) – is a welcome surprise and addition to the legacy of the famous outlaw. Gardarsson and Björnsdóttir have paced Farr’s epic adventure very well, and added to the appeal of Robin Hood by examining it from a modern angle. Elements in the way of gender equality, non-stop athleticism, a phenomenal set, original music, and compelling choreography furnish the classic plot with much-needed self-awareness and sensibility.
For more information about “The Heart of Robin Hood” at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, please visit thewallis.org