Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Irreverent Enchantment: Shakespeare by the Sea’s Robin Hood

If you live in Halifax or are travelling to the wonderfully laid-back city this summer, you must go and see Shakespeare by the Sea’s (SBTS) The Adventures of Robin Hood. The theatre company originally preformed a rendition of this classic tale in 2005, but this year’s version is a much more refreshing take. You can enjoy Alfresco Shakespeare in many Canadian cites: SBTS (Halifax and St. John’s), Dream in High Park (Toronto), Free Will Players Theatre Guild (Edmonton) and Bard on the Beach (Vancouver), to mention some of the more cleverly named. Take your snacks and sangria (er, I mean cranberry juice…most venues don’t officially allow booze) and enjoy a thespian adventure by starlight. Each year SBTS Halifax does two Shakespearean productions and one fairy tale “kids” play. Until now, I’ve been a purist and attended only plays by the Bard himself, but my tune has changed. You can take much more dramatic and theatrical liberties with a folktale like Robin Hood than with a five-act stage show with a definitive playwright. And take liberties they did. Sherwood Forest enchanted us all.

I’m probably an anomaly in that I was not familiar with the Robin Hood narrative. But my father always says you should know the basic plot before you head to the theatre and I think he’s right: that way your brain can focus on the nuances of the interpretation. So I checked out a Robin Hood picture book from the public library before the show. I’m glad I did. SBTS’s Robin Hood was nothing if not full of clever, random, and delightful nuances, some of which would have been lost on me if I didn’t do my homework beforehand. There were modifications to the classic plotline. Robin Hood’s famous peacock arrow had no role in this adaptation. Maid Marian started out as a handkerchief-obsessed she-villain before falling in love with Robin Hood. And never mind the fact that Prince John usurped the Loxley estate, Robin was more upset that the prince stole his favorite black shirt.

The man in tights himself was played by Jeremy Hutton, a Bradley Cooper lookalike with a satisfying bulge in his tights. Robin Hood is generally depicted as a genuine hero, but SBTS gave our protagonist a more complex treatment, capturing a potential for egotism and questioning his motives for stealing from the rich to give to the poor. Was the former Robin of Loxley really as altruistic as the picture books suggest? Or was his generosity meant to condition the poor to be his eventual protectors against Prince John? I loved the insinuation that we reexamine assumptions about those we call heroes.

Jeremy Hutton.
Prince John is portrayed as an illiterate numskull with a small heart and even smaller vocabulary. He depends on his right-hand man, the Sheriff of Nottingham, for constant advice and ego-stroking. The Sheriff of Nottingham has his own quirks, including an unexplained obsession with dressing up as various rodents. I got the feeling that the SBTS production company had a bunch of random costumes and ideas that they wanted to incorporate. Either that or the adaptation was a result of a wacky group-writing session that led to some bizarre conclusions. But it worked! There’s nothing to ‘get’ – it’s just so random and ridiculous that it’s hilarious. What audience wouldn’t enjoy a catapult made from a long stick with a stuffed kitten affixed to the end?

Another example of ridiculousness is the names of Robin Hood’s group of merry men: Len, Glenn, Ben and Sven. The writers evidently knew that Sven was not an English name, so the Sven character became a Norwegian, a Norwegian simpleton, a Norwegian simpleton with Turrets, a Norwegian simpleton with Turrets who just happens to have a gigantic Swedish flag handy and who had just made a shopping trip to a medieval IKEA. Anyway, you get the idea of how one simple rhyming concept likely snowballed into a hilariously nonsensical plot element. Sven reminded me of Forrest Gump; Simon Rainville, the actor who plays him, gets every bit as much credit as Tom Hanks. It takes a lot of talent to play an idiot and Rainville nailed it.

After seeing SBTS’s Robin Hood, I finally understand why the Golden Globe Awards lump the musical and comedy genres together. This was a comedy that was made that much funnier by the music. The entire cast broke into song for original numbers such as “The Poor of England” (the opening theme), “The Evil Song,” “We’re not Really Dead” (a self-reflexive battlefield masterpiece), “Merry Men,” “How do you get rid of Robin Hood?”, “Undercover Lover” (a Robin Hood-Marian duet featuring the witty line ‘I’m slightly lost without you’), “After intermission” (a clever way of announcing the break), “Mon Cheri,” and “The Adventures of Robin Hood” (the finale and thank you to the audience). The chorus mechanism was an unexpected yet fitting addition to Robin Hood. Prince John’s goons and Robin Hood’s merry men were the ideal company of singers and choreographed dancers to provide explanation and elaboration of the main action.

I’m not usually a fan of productions that involve audience involvement. After all, I’m paying to watch the actors do the acting. But this time I was so engaged that I didn’t mind. Besides, the solicited participation went beyond the usual applause competition. We got to make sounds of woodland creatures and draw our own imaginary bow and arrow. From the clever way it engaged the audience, to the inventive scriptwriting, to the superb acting from the entire cast, SBTS’s Robin Hood hit the bull’s-eye over and over.

Mari-Beth Slade is a food and wine lover, wayward librarian and would-be philosopher. She works as a marketer for an accounting firm in Halifax, but spends most days doing yoga poses at her desk or brainstorming discussion topics for her book club.

1 comment:

  1. Thanks very much for the kind words, Mari-Beth. To let you in on the process, the rodent paraphernalia was custom designed to fit our warped vision and was somewhat influenced by a CSI episode I accidentally watched during it's creation in 2005. We go to great lengths to be ridiculous.

    Thanks again!
    -William Foley (The Sheriff of Nottingham)