In the hood: Windmill's Fugitive

I grew up with the Robin Hood story (frankly, which kid didn’t?). I love its big epic tale of heroics and bravery, courage, action, romance and the ending which is only really the beginning. And it’s not hard to see why it’s such a good story, why it has lasted so long. It’s one of those stories which is both extremely simple and complex at the same time, a kind of two-way mirror or a kind of kaleidoscope that twists and magnifies the more you look at it. It’s about brigands and outlaws fighting injustice; it’s about social injustice and looking after the people who’ve fallen through the cracks in society for one reason or another; it’s about fighting for the underdog and standing up to those in charge, asking people ‘will you tolerate this?’ Yet, it’s a Romance, in the tradition of the quest stories from antiquity, the same essential story as that of King Arthur, another greatly mythologised figure.
Matthew Whittet’s Fugitive, playing at the Adelaide Festival as part of Windmill Theatre’s trilogy of rites-of-passage stories, is a comic-book fantasy hip-hop romp through a near-future dystopia. “The leaders have disappeared,” we are told. “It’s every man for himself. In the fog of his urban chaos, a young man returns. A guy with strange power and a backpack of destruction.” His name, like that of his legendary counterpart, is Robin. And he’s here to help.

It opens with a bang, literally, before Eamon Farren’s gangly hero steps out of the darkness into the footlights and pulls on his brown hooded jacket, and shoulders his backpack. The set, appropriately shaped like an open book, is covered with wallpaper of a lush verdant forest; Sherwood, we assume, though it could also be one of many fabled verdant realms, from Robin’s Sherwood to Shakespeare’s Arden, Tolkein’s Lothlórien, or even A. A. Milne’s beloved Hundred-Acre Wood. Doors and hatches are set into the angled walls, while a bench and beanbag lie on the floor, a neutral and uninspiring beige carpet. It’s almost like a very 1970s living room, where the colours are slightly muted but accentuated; it seems to hark back, perhaps unconsciously, to the living room we found ourselves in in Kate Mulvany’s The Seed, a play that also recalled the story of Robin Hood. By staging the action on such a space it puts us, the audience, in a space we recall from our childhood, the place where we first read and enacted those very stories for ourselves; it puts us in the story as it unfolds in front of and around us, on stage.
As Robin, Eamon Farren is his usual charismatic and cheeky self, the kind of Robin who’d be at home on the streets with a gang rather than in a forest; though, if we take the idea of the urban jungle, then he is our man. Very much playing out the troubled teenage male psyche, he is the hero of the story, but is also not quite the Robin Hood we remember. There is an edge to him, a rage inside of him, which he fights but can’t quite control. Matthew Whittet, essentially playing himself, gives his Will a lovely pathos, and is very much the straight man to Farren’s tortured hero. As well as the play’s sacrificial lamb, he is the bumbling best friend, the honest yet emotionally-confused companion for Kate Cheel’s Marion when Robin’s away. Cheel’s portrayal of Marion is as a young woman who, dressed in a blue-denim jumpsuit, (literally) kicks ass. She’s not afraid to get hurt, tells it like it is, and knows that she’s more than likely going to get hurt by getting involved with Robin again. We can see her past in her too, the weight of her previous relationship with Robin, her conflicting allegiances towards Will and Robin, the decision she has to make.
Patrick Graham as (‘Little’) John is overly emotional, misunderstood, and just wants a friend, wants to be part of something, anything, so long as it’s bigger than his life. Peter Houghton’s various knightly roles contrast nicely with his nasty lecherous Guy, the Sherriff’s famed assassin. Sporting various attires from hunting clothes and bright red mittens (as Marion’s father), to a chainmail shirt, tabard and helmet (as the Good Knight), and finally to Guy’s leather jacket, white pants and seedy moustache, each of his characters is as unique and gloriously idiosyncratic as the last. Carmel Johnson as the Sheriff is a wonderfully she-riff on the legendary character. Sporting a red, tightly-curled hairdo and a green Sixties’ psychedelic dress, she is as far from the stereotype of the Sheriff as you could get, yet in Whittet’s fevered and ridiculously imaginative world, it works. Every last one of them.
As Much Junior, Danielle Catanzariti opens the show, playing on the carpet with a plastic tiger and an AT-ST walker from Star Wars. Very much a kid, we are perhaps seeing the story through her eyes. Dressed in a brown hoodie, cargo pants and gumboots, she becomes a kind of narrator, storyteller, a kind of narrative glue which joins the sections of the story together. As the returning King Richard, she uses her diminutive height to send-up the idea of kingship; dressed in what are essentially rugs and blankets with a paper crown upon her head, she spins the whole story on its head when she sees the Sheriff. “I don’t want to play with you,” she says in the play’s deus ex machina moment. Suddenly, the whole story seems at once a game or a tale told to amuse her, a kind of dreamscape. “What’s next?” she asks Robin, Marion and John, and the lights slowly fade out.
In typical Whittet fashion, it is both a comment on the Robin Hood story as we know it (in a relatively ‘straight’ traditional sense) as much as it is a satire and a parody of all the stereotypes with which the story has been filled with, of all the clichés it has come to conjure up. There are the bow and arrows (as well as knives, swords and various other weapons, in a beautifully executed battle soundscape, courtesy of Luke Smiles), not to mention the king’s deer (mounted on the wall), the green hat with a feather in it, and the obligatory green tights, which Whittet makes his own in a totally unforgettable way. When grafted onto a teen coming-of-age story, it becomes so much more than ‘a Robin Hood story,’ and becomes an analogy for every confused and existential teenager, a hymn to a dream of an idyll of a better – fairer – world; a play for everyone who doesn’t recognise or understand their emotions or the world they suddenly find themselves stranded in. Marion is no longer the damsel in distress of medieval legend but a girl who has been left behind by a boy she loved, a girl who thought she’d lost everything; a girl who knows how to fight and how to survive when pushed to the edge. As with other examples of Whittet’s work, there is a pointed edge to this reimagining of the legend. In a sly dig at current social justice trends and social media campaigns, it asks us how far can we go in standing up for what is right before we abuse our position and the privilege we hold of being able to do something about it? When does trying to help people turn into the exact thing you are trying to fight against? When does ‘right’ become nothing more than a display of force and antagonism? In Farren’s embodiment of Robin, we get no clear-cut answers, and perhaps it works that we don’t; there is a scene between Marion and Robin late in the piece which illustrates this point with a frankness and undisguised honesty which is beguiling. When coupled with the scene in which Robin tries to give Much part of his takings from the rich, to help her get by, we – as does Robin – realise he has gone too far; the line between fighting to alleviate the hardships and being an oppressor himself has become blurred, the two are almost one, and it’s an uncomfortable scene to watch. But it is absolutely necessary to Whittet’s story, and the greater Robin Hood story as we know it, and it’s surprising that it doesn’t play more of a part in current reimaginings of the story.
Featuring a “magic backpack of destruction” which is never explained, as well as a love triangle which is never fully accounted for nor resolved, Fugitive could perhaps be ten minutes longer, a bit tighter, and have an ending which is a bit less rushed or one that at least deals with the Romance genre’s “wonder upon wonder” revelation trope less awkwardly. While perhaps not as consistently rewarding or involving as School Dance, it is nonetheless a clever appropriation of a time-worn legend; with its Stormtrooper-knights, outrageous whipped-cream scene and dance moves to boot, it is an anarchically memorable harnessing of the classic folkloric tale to a contemporary Australian sensibility.

Theatre playlist: 12. Rescue, Andy Price

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