Like many things, this all began with a phone call. The Theatre Royal Nottingham calling out of the blue one day, to ask if New Perspectives would be interested in collaborating with them to create a new production of Robin Hood to mark their 150th anniversary. We were flattered, honoured, surprised and also a little doubtful. As a company devoted to the new, be that new writing or new angles on existing work, it was a struggle to see how we were the perfect fit to provide a traditional production for a commercial space. And Robin Hood in Nottingham? We like to surprise ourselves, but this sounded like a step too far. However on talking further, it became clear that a traditional production was far from what they had in mind. Their vision was to engage six or seven major playwrights from the region to contribute to a new version of the Hood legend. It would be a show for a wide age range, though not a children’s show nor a green tights pantomime. The writers they were thinking about were all known for social and political concerns in their work. The Royal wanted something genuinely new, fresh and very Nottingham. Our involvement began to make sense.
Generally speaking, single plays don’t want to be written by seven people. Usually one, sometimes two or maybe devised by a performing company. But the idea of seven individual playwrights all writing one piece sounded like chaos. And while chaos can be good fun for those creating it, the audience needed a cohesive experience otherwise we would be wasting their time. We didn’t want this to be a sketch show nor a variety act. Even if the play was to be put together by seven heads (eight if you include my own), it had to have an ultimate point of view. Yet another risk for such a project would be that it flattens out the writers’ individual voices in the name of democracy. My task was therefore to find a way to give each writer creative freedom, yet within a structure that would amount to a single coherent vision.
The solution I eventually came to, which now seems very obvious, was to give each writer a period of history from the last 150 years, as well as a designated portion of the story and a facet of the Hood myth (the outlaw, the agitator, the romantic, the industry etc). Within these constraints the writers had the freedom to write
the story they wanted, yet I knew that there would be a forward movement both in history and in terms of the basic Hood narrative. Moving through history made sense in terms of the
Theatre Royal’s birthday, but it also gave us an opportunity to examine how the Hood ideals have changed and adjusted alongside the wider changes of society. Who would these characters be in, say, post-industrial England or the 1960s? The answer largely lay in what injustice they would have been fighting against. The play that has emerged is both the story of Robin Hood and the story of our developing city. Once the writers had created their worlds, the plays could be knitted together to become a single shape-shifting voice.
Starting in newly industrialised England, Mufaro Makubika brilliantly sets his piece during a train robbery in St Ann’s. This is a subversion of one of the earliest medieval Hood ballads (Robin Hood and the Potter) in which the outlaws hold up a merchant cart as it passes through the forest. The baton is then taken by James Graham, who ingeniously lands Robin in early twentieth century Nottingham as the first labour MP; a role that takes on a whole new significance post 2015 election. Tim Elgood then skilfully moves us on to 1940s war-torn Britain, with Robin and his men as soldiers in the Sherwood Foresters regiment. When we meet the characters again after the interval we are in Laura Lomas’ civil rights sixties, with Hood and Marian as key protesters against the creation of what would become the road Maid Marian Way. By the time we get to Andy Barrett’s 1980s, the fight for social justice has been lost and there is no longer such thing as society (although there is such a thing as Hollywood heroism so Robin ultimately saves the day). In the final surprising scene, set in 2015, the world is turned upside down for us to observe the industry that Hood has become today. It is a return to the forest, though a forest with a wholly different meaning. The pieces are strung together by the wandering ballads and narrations of Alan a Dale. He is our one nod to the medieval world where these now modernised characters have sprung from. He serves as a guide for the audience, a helping hand as they pass through time. In the forum theatre sense of the word, he is our ‘joker’, with one foot in the world of the play and one in ours.
The reasoning behind the set was not so much about finding a ‘setting’ but about creating an environment that could tell the audience its own story through the course of the action. A story of wood, structure, trains, tunnels and trees. I never like to look at a set and know exactly what it means or how it is going to work. I prefer it to surprise us and change, depict as well as suggest. Most of all, it should provoke unexpected performances from the actors and unleash new possibilities from the text. Designer Rhys Jarman has done (in my view) a terrific job of developing both a specific and open-ended environment for these six stories to play out with increasing momentum.
Purists be warned: This production couldn’t be further from a straight telling of the Robin Hood story. We came to the decision that the green tights fairytale was something that most of you will have seen before. And if 1000 years isn’t enough time to permit a bit of creative tampering with a myth, then our great stories will remain forever trapped in the vaults of ancient history. When I was an assistant director at the Royal Shakespeare Company, a portion of my job involved politely fielding letters from outraged patrons expressing their disapproval of changes made to Shakepeare’s text. A woman even once wrote saying that our cutting of a line from Act 1 Scene 2 of Macbeth had “ruined” her birthday. We certainly don’t want to ruin any birthdays with this production, quite the opposite. Our aim is in fact to celebrate the birthday of one of the country’s major theatres; a theatre with the vision and courage to offer you something quite different.
Jack McNamara, Artistic Director