An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 7, 2014

Farr: The Heart of Robin Hood

David Farr’s The Heart of Robin Hood, a review of the December 22, 2013 evening production.

Reviewed by Kevin J. Harty (

There is a plenitude of magic on the boards at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the American Repertory Theater is mounting a production of David Farr’s The Heart of Robin Hood, which regenders the oft-told tale of the here not-so merry men by empowering Marion who teaches Robin a thing or two about matters of the heart.  This production faithfully restages the excellent original production done in Stratford-upon-Avon by The Royal Shakespeare Company in November 2011, which I also saw.  (The text of the play is available in paperback from Faber & Faber.)

If King Arthur is the ultimate medieval establishment figure, Robin Hood and Joan of Arc have always stood as anti-authoritarian figures.  But unlike Arthur—who has had his “biography” writ large by Geoffrey of Monmouth, Malory, Tennyson and White among others—and Joan—whose life is minutely detailed in the records first of her trial and then of her rehabilitation—Robin Hood has not been subjected to “a tyranny of tradition,” to quote Norris J. Lacy about cinema Arthuriana.  For the Hoodian legend, there is no one source text, so in dealing with Robin almost anything goes, as for instance his shift from first being a fifteenth-century yeoman in the early ballad tradition and Geste to then becoming a Saxon freedom fighter during the Crusades, thanks in large part to Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.  Along the way prose, poetry, drama, opera, film, television, and even advertising have had a go at Robin moving him hither, thither, and yon across history and space—Australia’s Ned Kelly has acquired a reputation as a localized Robin and the again not-so-merry men appeared in an episode of Star Trek: Next Generation where no man has gone before, across the final frontier!

So too this production which places Robin (Jordan Dean), Much Miller (Andy Grotelueschen subsequently replaced by Daniel Berger-Jones), and Will Scathlock (Zachary Eienstat) in pastoral homosocial bliss in Sherwood, robbing from the rich and giving to themselves, and for reasons never quite clearly established eschewing the company of all women—Robin simply allows that “a woman causes storms in the hearts of man.”   They are soon joined by Little John (Jeremy Crawford), who, in a nice touch, is the shortest member of the adult cast, once he swears an oath

. . . to be faithful to the order of the oak,
To steal what you can steal,
To obey no law of God nor man,
To be free, under no king’s orders,
No lord’s edicts and no church’s summons,
Only dancing to the music of your own soul
And the forest beneath your feet.

As Robin and his men go about their robbing and communing with nature, King Richard is away on Crusade, and his brother Prince John (Damian Young) plots to take the throne and the hand of Marion (Christina Bennett Lind), the daughter of Richard’s lieutenant in the Holy Lands, the Duke of York.  In Farr’s version of the Hoodian legend, Marion has been “promoted” from Maid to Princess—she had previously been “promoted” from Maid to Lady in the three-season BBC television series. Prince John is aided in his machinations by Guy of Gisborne (David Michael Garry), a familiar enough figure in any number of iterations of the Hoodian legend, who will eventually be appointed Sheriff of Nottingham by Prince John, his grateful co-conspirator.

From the start, Marion is headstrong, refusing to marry a man of her father and her guardian’s preference, choosing instead with the assistance of her more-than-reluctant servant, the over-the-top and ever-so-foppish Pierre (Christopher Sieber), to set out for Sherwood to join Robin.  Rebuffed by Robin (with whom she falls in love at first sight), she decides to remain in the forest as Martin of Sherwood, robbing from the rich and giving to the poor, with the still more-than-reluctant Pierre, now known as Big Peter, as her sidekick.  Prince John meanwhile with Guy’s aid has set about raising money for himself to overthrow Richard under the guise of a scheme called the Holy Contribution allegedly designed to rescue the Holy Land from the infidel and stop their supposed eventual invasion of England—a nod to post-9/11 hysteria?

The plot only thickens when Prince John hangs Robert Summers (Louis Tucci who doubles as Marion’s guardian, Makepeace, and several other characters) after he refuses to pay the Holy Contribution, thereby orphaning his two young children Jethro (Andrew Cekala) and Sarah (Claire Candela), who in turn also flee to Sherwood.  Through a complicated serious of subplots, Martin and Big Peter do and don’t join Robin and his men, and the children are spared, condemned, and threatened with condemnation again as Marion/Martin and Pierre/Big Peter repeatedly attempt to save them with Robin’s sometimes reluctant help.  Traps are sprung; rescues, sometimes successful and sometimes thwarted, are attempted.  Marion finds a foil in her unattractive, spoiled and vain sister Alice (Katrina Yaukey), who is one with a number of women other than Marion who traditionally cause difficulties for Robin.  And there is even a sort of deus ex machina when Marion’s father shows up unexpectedly in the last scene to set everything right—a role usually reserved on page and screen for the previously-absent King Richard.

The Heart of Robin Hood borrows from a number of recognizable Hoodian narremes and themes, as well as from an at times hilarious grab bag of other sources—the shark from Jaws makes a brief appearance in a pond in Sherwood at one point, for no particular reason, other than perhaps to provide yet another good laugh.  Marion’s doubling as Martin recalls Shakespeare’s Rosalind—especially since neither makes a very convincing looking man, a point unnoticed by other characters in each play.  Previous Marions/Marians have been empowered, especially on film and television.  Lucy Griffith’s BBC Marian leads a secret life as the Night Watchman single-handedly righting wrongs long before her Robin returns from the Crusades, and Cate Blanchett’s Marion Loxley is an iconic recreation of Ingrid Bergman’s Joan of Arc when she rides astride a charger out onto the beach in head to toe armor in the climactic final battle in director Ridley Scott’s 2010 film Robin Hood

The idea that Robin needs taming is also nothing new, and Farr’s play combines that narreme with another equally familiar one, the opposition between the confines of castle/city life and the freedom afforded by nature in Sherwood.  When Marion is finally allowed to choose whom she will marry, Robin, her soon-to-be husband, agrees under one condition:

But if I am to marry . . . the altar will not be made of marble and gold but of bark and branch.  I cannot live in a castle of man with servants at my command and villages at my thrall.  I live bound only to the beating of my heart.  And that of the woman I love.  Marion, come and marry me in the only cathedral I have.

The Heart of Robin Hood is framed by the tale of Pierre/Big Peter who begins and ends the play with monologues about how he too found his heart in a “wood of oak.”  Along the way, we are treated to a bit of drama, a bit of stage musical, a bit of blue grass concert, a bit of ballet in a brief pas de deux aloft between the dead Robert Summers and his long dead wife, a bit of the traditional English Christmas Robin Hood panto (“Big” Peter’s name for starters, and then there is the shark!), and more than a bit of gymnastics and acrobatics au Cirque de Soleil (Jordan Dean and a number of other cast members have obviously been spending a great deal of their free time at a nearby gym), all staged on the most marvelous set.  Designer Börkur Jónsson has filled the Loeb auditorium with a floor to ceiling forest of oaks—proper English oaks—in which actors hide and from and to which they descend and ascend as necessary.  The backdrop is a huge, again floor to ceiling, slide which easily turns into a castle and a cathedral when necessary.  Music and lyrics are provided by the group Poor Old Shine who venture forth from their corner orchestra pit onto the stage and into the audience, singing and strumming merrily away. In charge of the whole production is the Icelandic director Gisli Örn Gardarsson, who in an interview published in the production program confesses to an Icelandic fondness for sharks!

Farr himself offers up a convincing new spin on the tale of Robin Hood.  Not only does Farr empower Marion, but he also allows for a deeper characterization of Robin himself.  Farr’s Robin can be brutish—in a scene out of the ballad tradition, a corrupt covetous monk is beheaded. Fittingly, he is separated from his gold just before he is separated from his head.  This Robin can be headstrong, brooding, sullen, more than a bit misogynistic.  Most importantly, he is at first heartless, but his encounter with Marion changes all that.  In this production of The Heart of Robin Hood, much happens on the Loeb stage in a little less than two and a half hours, and all of it is great fun and a marvelous testimony to the transformative power of really good theater, and to the enduring allure of the legend of the Hoodian greenwood.

The Heart Robin Hood, December 11, 2013-January 19, 2014, a production of the American Repertory Theatre at the Loeb Drama Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Directed by Gisli Örn Gardarsson. Text by David Farr.  Music by Poor Old Shine. Lyrics by Poor Old Shine and David Farr. Set design by Börkur Jónsson. Costume design by Emma Ryott. Lighting design by Björn Helgason. Sound design by Jonathan Deans. Musical direction by Kris Kukul.  Text: The Heart of Robin Hood by David Farr. London: Faber & Faber, 2011.

Kevin J. Harty
La Salle University