Everybody knows the legend of Robin Hood, the dashing medieval outlaw intent on leveling the economic playing field in Sherwood Forest. So, what’s left to say about a hero portrayed on screen by Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner, and Russell Crowe?
Find out right now in Toronto! Featuring Tony winner Gabriel Ebert (Matilda) in the title role, the show has just been extended in Toronto and plays the Royal Alexandra Theatre through March 29.
A bold combination of classic storytelling and eye-popping spectacle, The Heart of Robin Hood features a plot twist that’s both Shakespearean and thoroughly modern: As the show begins, Robin is nothing more than a common thief, while Maid Marion, disguised as a male rival, shares her spoils with the poor. Needless to say, swordplay and romance ensue.
“In the simplest terms, this is a show with a strong story, exuberant theatricality, and visual poetry,” says David Farr, who penned the script as a 2011 holiday presentation for the Royal Shakespeare Company, where he was a former associate director. Farr’s literary bent is balanced by the visionary talent of Gisli Örn Gardarsson, who turned to directing and acting after many years as a champion gymnast in his native Iceland. Before teaming up for The Heart of Robin Hood, Farr and Gardarsson collaborated on an internationally acclaimed version of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis,.
Tales of Robin, Marion, and the Merry Men have taken a variety of forms over the centuries in Great Britain, explains Farr. “Everyone has a view of who Robin Hood was and how he lived, but nothing is certain — he’s wonderfully elusive. I was keen to take the story back from that of a nobleman who has hit hard times to the peasant he started off being. I thought that would be more interesting and more fun.”
“My description of the show is that it’s a fantastic fairy tale,” says Gardarsson. “The title says it all: It’s about Robin Hood finding his heart — his transformation from a rather dark character to opening up to the world around him. The audience is immersed in this world of theatrical joy where the rules keep being broken.”
In Farr and Gardarsson’s Sherwood Forest, Marion is Robin’s worthy adversary, with a feistiness inspired in part by the creators’ real-life daughters. “I wrote the piece four years ago when pop culture was very much about men doing exciting stuff and girls fluttering their eyelids and swooning at appropriate intervals,” Farr says with a laugh. “Interestingly,” he adds, “there’s been a shift in that over the past two or three years,” referring to strong female heroines in movies such as The Hunger Games and Insurgent. When Gardarsson read the script, he recalls, “I instantly thought of my 8-year-old daughter and wanted to do it with her generation in mind.”
The show’s acrobatic feats, flying, and swashbuckling take place on Icelandic designer Börkur Jónsson’s “highly physical and vibrant” set, which includes a mountain, a pond, a 50-foot slide, and a tree that envelops the audience. “It’s an amazing playground,” says Gardarsson, who cast physically fit actors rather than athletes and tailored his staging to their talent. The result: a lavish, where-should-I-look extravaganza that manages not to overshadow the tale being told. “Gisli has the unique gift of using the most daring aerial stuff to advance the narrative,” Farr declares. “You don’t just sit back and admire the physical virtuosity on display; he has a wonderful sense of story.”
Gardarsson began developing his theatrical sensibility while studying at the Icelandic Academy of the Arts. At 6-foot-4, he laughingly describes himself as an unlikely gymnast, but his athleticism inspired his work as an actor and director. “I had been training four hours a day, six days a week, and when I got out of drama school, I thought it would be a shame to let those skills and that discipline go to waste,” he recalls. He decided to stage Romeo and Juliet and play the title hero himself, swooping in on a trapeze to declare his love. This “experiment in using my physicality to go on an emotional journey” was so successful, the production eventually transferred to London’s West End.
To balance the Shakespearean overtones of The Heart of Robin Hood, the production features original music composed and performed by Parsonsfield, a Connecticut-based roots band. “I was keen to find a music of the forest without getting stuck in an Englishness that could get a little ‘twee,’” says Farr. “What’s exciting is how American this music is. You’re half in the Dust Bowl and half in the Forest of Nottinghamshire in 1400, and that’s a very alive place to spend a couple of hours.”
Above all, Robin Hood’s British/Icelandic creative partners envisioned a thrilling theatrical experience for all ages. “It’s all about blowing the dust off this story in a hundred different ways to make it live for now — so that no one feel like they’re watching something historical or studious,” says Farr. “There’s a crackling narrative, a proper good-and-evil story, and huge theatricality, with people flying in on ropes and down slopes. It’s a full sensory experience.”