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RMTC's Robin Hood revamp is physically demanding, emotionally challenging

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 12/11/2014 (2099 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For many of its cast members, The Heart of Robin Hood is pounding, racing and occasionally skipping a beat.

The international stage collaboration that arrives at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre on Thursday is marked by a revisionist tale about the legendary outlaw and awesome aerial action taking place in Sherwood Forest. It is the latter that has had many of the merry men feeling, well, not so cheery.

Cast gets a workout in physically demanding, emotionally challenging Robin Hood revamp on Royal MTC stage.


Cast gets a workout in physically demanding, emotionally challenging Robin Hood revamp on Royal MTC stage.

"The show is astonishingly physical," says Gabriel Ebert, the Tony Award-winning actor who is playing the title role. "I'm having to conquer fears all over the place. I'm not good with heights and I have to get on a rope 50 feet in the air and slide down a ramp that seems at a 90-degree angle. That's pretty terrifying. I'm screaming on the inside."

It was English writer David Farr who conceived of a robbing hood -- a thug who steals from the rich but has yet to catch on to philanthropy -- and took his script to Gisli ñrn Gardarsson, his Icelandic collaborator on their acclaimed adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis. The Reykjavik-born director was not initially interested in disturbing that well-plowed ground in Nottinghamshire but went all in when he read Farr's non-traditional female hero story about how Maid Marian goes undercover and teaches Robin he has a heart.

Farr, associate director of London's Royal Shakespeare Company, re-thought Robin Hood after listening to his two daughters gripe about the dearth of good female heroines and how boys always get to do the exciting stuff. Gardarsson wanted to cut off those future complaints from his seven-year-old girl.

"It was a let's-do-it -for-our daughters kind of thing," says Gardarsson, during an interview prior to rehearsals the other day.

The 40-year-old director/actor is a former member of Iceland's national gymnastic team, and his performances/productions have been characterized by robust physicality that typically take his actors out of their comfort zone. For him, it's all about creating something seen only in the theatre.

Izzie Steel, left, plays Marion as Gabriel Ebert plays Robin Hood in RMTC's production of The Heart of Robin Hood by David Farr. The show runs until Dec. 6.


Izzie Steel, left, plays Marion as Gabriel Ebert plays Robin Hood in RMTC's production of The Heart of Robin Hood by David Farr. The show runs until Dec. 6.

"I've always used very physical means to enhance emotional moments," says Gardarsson, who has been dubbed the action man of theatre. "In musicals, people sing to express emotions. In my case, you have to fly because you are so in love."

The verdant set features 12-metre high grass slides from which actors make plunging entrances. They also drop into the action on ceiling ropes or climb to exit. The stage features a pond and hideouts from which characters suddenly appear.

"I cast brilliant actors, not just physical ones," says the six-foot-two Gardarsson, who has cut a dashing figure around RMTC. "I teach them and make them brave enough to do what the role requires. Everybody is afraid of heights and no one is used to that kind of stuff. That's what brings out that heightened emotional journey."

In The Heart of Robin Hood, which debuted at the RSC in 2011, Marion is a royal who hates her boring aristocratic life and the prospect of marrying the despicable Prince John. She takes refuge in the forest, where she disguises herself as Martin, a bandit, and encounters Robin Hood, who prohibits women from joining his merry men.

Marian/Martin is played by London-born American Izzy Steele, who doesn't get a break from Gardarsson's athletic demands.

"My days end with Epsom salt baths and Tiger Balm," says Steele, who grew up in Delaware. "It's a little Cirque du soleil meets Shakespeare."

Steele, 28 is a self-admitted adrenaline junkie who has skydived over the Swiss Alps and cliff-jumped in Croatia. She knows that if she can do that, she can play Marian/Martin even if she has to occasionally pump up her nerve.

"The most intimidating thing I do in the show is a quick change underwater," she says. "The audience is going to leave wondering how in the world we managed to pull off some of this stuff."

This is the first time in Winnipeg for Gardarsson and his two leads and they aren't looking past the RMTC run.

"Everybody in Iceland knows about Gimli and Manitoba," says Gardarsson. "I came here to do auditions and almost everyone said that they were Icelandic. We have a lot of Winnipeg jokes in Iceland."

The Heart of Robin Hood continues on to Mirvish Productions in Toronto next month before a rumoured landing on Broadway in March. New York's Barry and Fran Weissler (Pippin and Chicago) are co-producing with Mirvish Productions and have the Great White Way in their sights.

Gardarsson says he would love to see that happen but adds quickly it was never his goal. He thought he was done with the show in 2011 after the RSC curtain came down. He has since helmed a version in Norway and there is one in Sweden at the moment.

"At the end of the day we're just in a black theatre doing the work and whether it is a house in New York or a house in Winnipeg, it's equally important," says the co-founder of the internationally renowned theatre and film company Vesturport in Reykjavik.

No one should get the idea that the mostly American cast feels they are slumming it in the theatrical hinterlands as the cost of getting to The Show. Ebert, who won a 2013 Tony for best featured actor in Matilda the Musical hopes to get there for the fifth time. Last June he performed in Casa Valentina, written by four-time Tony winner Harvey Fierstein and directed by double Tony winner Joe Mantello, but its run lasted just 79 performances.

"We never got a chance to try it out of town," says the New Yorker. "Opening on Broadway is cool but we were working out the kinks in front of a Broadway audience. When the critics came they had problems with the play and took it out on Harvey. If it had a run, for instance in Winnipeg, those problems would have been worked out."


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Updated on Saturday, November 15, 2014 at 6:03 PM CST: Corrects typo.

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