Quarrels and Quarterstaffs: Shakespeare’s Robin of Sherwood on DVD

I’m probably the last person in the world to see this, because everyone else caught it in the cinema, but let me wholeheartedly recommend it anyway.

Robin of Sherwood is one of Shakespeare’s most fantastical plays, from the initial appearance of Herne the Hunter (played here by Branagh himself, in a lovely cameo) through the evil magic of the Satanic nuns to the old magic of the people of the hills. But it’s also one of his most down-to-earth plays, with the robust humour of Friar Tuck (Stanley Tucci! And he was great! He should do Falstaff next!) and Alan-a-Dale (Justin Timberlake. Well, he can certainly sing…) and the everyday story of a bad sheriff (George Clooney—he’d have been great if he’d managed the accent) a worse prince (Christopher Lee—he can do the accent!) and the outlaws who oppose them and bring back the true king (Brian Blessed).

The play is episodic and disjointed, scenes with the outlaws, scenes in Nottingham with Marion (Alison Lohmann) and her wicked uncle, robbery, archery, repression, not to forget the wicked nuns. The thing that draws it together is the friendship between the Merry Men. Shakespeare chooses to begin not with Robin’s exile from Locksley but with Herne’s prologue and then immediately thrusts us into the battle between Robin (Kevin Kline—and I didn’t think he was even slightly too old for it) and Little John (Sylvester Stallone). Robin and Little John refuse to give way to each other, they brag, they fight with quarterstaffs, and at the end of ten minutes are fast friends and go off together as the nucleus of an outlaw band. It’s wise not to mess with Shakespeare, he had a fine sense of timing. Showing Robin’s exile silently over the credits might make it easier to understand, but there’s no need for it—he does explain everything in his bragging, and then later to Marion, and it messes up the shape of the story. It isn’t a story about Robin’s exile, it’s a story of what he does in Sherwood (did you notice the title? Duh!) and Branagh shouldn’t have changed it. Having said that, this was the only place where I gnashed my teeth—well, except the love scene in the prison, but it isn’t Branagh’s fault Shakespeare had to be so ridiculously sentimental. And the old man with the pet rat who refuses to escape (Spike Milligan, typecast, but who cares) does give the scene some interest.

As usual with movies of Shakespeare (post-Olivier anyway) there’s an assumption that you can’t keep still to listen to someone talking and any long speech (even “Under the greenwood tree”) has to be broken up with cuts and visuals. But I didn’t mind it all that much. The CGI demons were very good, and as for the shadow of Herne’s antlers appearing over Robin when he made his impossible shot to win the contest, I thought that was nifty. It’s not in the text, but when you’re looking at the actual distance rather than a stage, it does help to be able to believe in supernatural aid.

I really liked Chiwetl Ejiofor as Nazir—I thought he stole the show every time he was in a shot. I loved the whole sequence with him bargaining with Herne for Robin’s life, and he said “By oak, by ash, by thorn, by all the trees” as if he was just seeing the trees and naming them naturally, and he managed the awkward line “let not his blood be swallowed by the sod that sups him up” as if he had no idea that “sod” could mean anything other than earth. I don’t think Shakespeare meant that line to get a giggle, but whenever I’ve seen it in the theatre it’s got one. Ejiofor’s other great moment was really just the look on his face when King Richard comes riding through the forest and he turns to Friar Tuck. I liked most of the Merry Men, in fact. The play rests on our ability to believe that they believe in Robin, and here we had that. I also liked seeing Marion practicing archery with them in the background—it’s not in the play, but the more women with bows in their hands instead of needles the better.

With this new definitive movie of the play available on DVD, I hope the old eighties version (in revoltingly “modernized” English) can be forgotten.

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