The Heart of Robin Hood, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Straford-upon-Avon (4/5)


The greensward is a massive 40-foot high slope in The Heart of Robin Hood, the RSC's captivating new Christmas show.

The characters enter by sliding down the near-vertical back wall of Borkur Jonsson's set with an elating whoosh. Their other main route into the proceedings is by insertion upside down on ropes lowered from a lofty canopy of oak branches. Since the Company started performing on high-altitude thrust-stages, niftiness at dangling in a harness must have become virtually an audition requirement for actors at the RSC. And there's no one better at choreographing this form of suspense than Gisli Orn Gardarrson of Iceland's celebrated Vesturport outfit. Ending with a lyrical aerial twirl by the now-entwined hero and heroine, his is a Christmas production that, in the best possible sense, keeps things above the heads of young and old alike.

If the dominating slope approaches a 1:1 gradient, Robin Hood is on an equivalently stiff learning curve in David Farr's wittily revisionist new version. Looking a bit like a Joe Orton fantasy with his bare chest and laced-up leather trousers, James McArdle's blunt, Yorkshire Robin starts off as an emotionally arrested boy who heads a gang of ullulating thugs dedicated to self-interest. Then along comes Iris Roberts's winningly spirited, blonde-bobbed Marion who (shades of Rosalind in As You Like It) is forced to lead a double life. In the castle, she feigns betrothal to Martin Hutson's pervily psychotic Prince John. In the forest, she masquerades as Martin of Sherwood, spearhead of a rival, more caring-and-sharing bunch of thieves.

A bit too politically correct? Actually no, because there's lashings of irreverence (Little John is played a drily philosophical dwarf); some good gruesome gags (such as playing for time by playing puppets with the corpse of Guy of Gisborne) and a lovely fool in the burly shape of Olafur Darri Olafson's Pierre, a self-involved French fop (“”Green is not my colour”) who later quite gets off on faking “butch”. And there's a frizzy-haired dog who parps on a clarinet and wild boar who saws on a cello before it is removed as his innards during a ritual disembowelling.

There are also disturbing elements in the central story of the traumatising dangers facing the two children of a man who was hanged as a subversive for refusing to pay Prince John's fraudulent Holy Contribution Tax. For this reason, I think it would be safer to take children a little older than the 7 upwards suggested by the RSC. Otherwise, warmly recommended.