He may get billing in the title, but make no mistake — The Heart of Robin Hood, the lavish production seeing its Canadian premiere at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, is not so much the lovable thief’s story as it is the maid Marion’s.
But the both of them are upstaged by a visually sumptuous, wildly energetic and tremendously entertaining production.
This retelling of the Robin Hood story has come a long way to grace the Winnipeg stage. David Farr’s 2011 play was premiered in the U.K. by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and just saw its first North American production at the American Repertory Theatre in Boston late last year.
It comes here in a co-production with Toronto’s Mirvish Productions and the team of Barry and Fran Weissler, who produced the Broadway hit Chicago. So there are hopes this production might find its way to the Great White Way — and it’s certainly got enough visual pizzazz to make it a contender.
It offers up a satisfyingly fresh take on the Robin Hood story, laced with enough action and comedy to make it a crowd-pleaser. We meet the title character (played here by Tony-winner Gabriel Ebert) as he’s threatening to flay a nobleman he’s just robbed - not so he can distribute the riches, mind you, but so that he and his feral band of merry men can add to their own hoard.
Enter Marion (Izzie Steele, one of many actors making her Canadian debut in this production). Noble born, she’s also got a noble heart, and leaves the comfort of castle living to seek out Robin. But when she finds the self-centred and callous thief, she sets out to change his thuggish ways, and help him find his heart.
While it all makes for an entertaining bit of de-mythologizing, you can probably take a fair guess at how that ends — beyond the initial twist on a familiar tale, “surprise” is not the strong suit of Farr’s script. But getting to that predictable ending is still an awful lot of fun.
Helmed by Iceland’s Gísli Örn Gardarsson (who directed the original RSC production), this production crackles with energy. It’s got acrobatics, some very impressive aerial rope work, sword fights, fist fights (smartly choreographed by Joe Bostick) and fantastic foot-stomping tunes from American roots band Parsonsfield, who act as a sort of musical chorus throughout the show (and make sure you arrive early for their pre-show set).
Designer Börkur Jónsson, who also worked on the RSC production, provides a stunning set for all that action. The audience is enveloped by the forest here — the branches of Sherwood’s trees extend out over the front rows of the theatre. And it’s backed by a tremendous curved ramp that runs up into the rafters, and provides a slide down for many energetic entrances.
The cast — mostly actors from Toronto and the U.S. (including a couple of returning cast members from the ART production) — is uniformly impressive. Ebert has a likeable swagger as Robin, and delivers both the menace of the more callow Hood and his sly humour admirably.
As Marion’s loyal but cowardly clown Pierre, Christian Lloyd brings some delightful comic relief, as does Sarah Schenkhan as Alice, Marion’s shallow sister. As the lone local adult cast member, Paul Essiembre is wonderfully menacing as Prince John’s henchman Gisborne. And Euan Morton does a deliciously wicked turn as the cruel prince.
But this is, ultimately, Marion’s show - and Steele meets the demands of the role. She’s convincingly flinty as the principled heart of the play, delivers comedy with aplomb and has a charming chemistry with Ebert.
The only real qualm I had with the 140-minute production is that it’s pretty much exhausted its impressive bag of tricks by the time we reach the second act, which seems to move a bit too slowly to a conclusion we can all see coming.
Even so, this is theatre on a scale we rarely see here in Winnipeg. Go and make merry with Robin, Marion and company — it’ll do your heart good.
The Heart of Robin Hood runs at the Royal MTC John Hirsch Mainstage until Dec. 6.