Robin Hood

Andy Murray hears from director Joe Sumison about why he’s decided to take the theatrical production out into the open

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At about this time of year, many parks and country houses the length of Britain play host to open-air theatre productions. It’s become a tradition, but actually it’s only a relatively recent innovation. Back in 1987, Lancaster’s Dukes Theatre was pretty much a pioneer when it staged a version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream – featuring a young Andy Serkis, no less, as Lysander – in the leafy environs of the local Williamson Park. Twenty-six summers later, the Dukes’ outdoor shows in the park have become a summer staple.

But as director Joe Sumsion points out: “The big difference between a Dukes’ open-air show and virtually all of the others is that we do it as walkabout theatre. Most open-air theatre is a bit like having a stage but without a roof, in gardens or whatever. And that can be fine, but this is different. We take our audiences on a journey through the park, following the story. That’s the genuinely exciting bit about it.”

This year, the Dukes’ walkabout show is Robin Hood, which could hardly be better suited to its location. “If you were going to do Robin Hood in a theatre, the set designer very soon would think ‘How are we going to do the woods? How are we going to do the Sheriff of Nottingham’s castle?’ We’ve got the Ashton Memorial, which is a fantastic building, and a very good home for quite a narcissistic sheriff. We’ve also got great wooded areas and there’s a lake too. The park is made for Robin Hood, really.”

Sumsion’s team pride themselves on offering up family-friendly retellings of classic tales that nevertheless come with unexpected twists. “I think there are certain things that people expect from any interpretation of Robin Hood: adventure, heroism, an exploration of justice and romance. And our version will have all of those things but our Robin Hood’s a bit older than usual. He’s been a soldier. He’s got a bit more experience in there. And one of the things we’re interested in is, he’s fallible. It’s not always easy for him to do the right thing. Without wanting to give too much away, within our version he becomes the full version of himself. He doesn’t arrive as the genuine article.”

This take on Robin Hood puts particular emphasis on his significant other. “I think in a traditional version of the story, Maid Marion can be played as a damsel in distress, if you like. Our Marion is a lot more funky than that. For us, the relationship between Robin and Marion is a relationship of equals. So it is a boy’s-own story, but it’s a girl’s-own story too. Without wanting to be po-faced about it, we are in 2013 and gender politics have moved on a lot since the 14th century!”

The Lancaster community has grown very attached to the Williamson Park walkabout shows over the years. Young audience members from the earliest shows are still coming, but now with their own offspring in tow. Unsurprisingly then, there was quite an outcry when it was announced that, due to financial strictures, there would be no walkabout show last summer. “When we explained this, the fantastic thing that happened was that hundreds of people said to us: ‘Look, you’ve got to rethink that. We know times are hard, but actually this is central to what the Dukes does.’ So what was a very difficult time for us, I now view as being very positive, because in a sense it’s a vote of confidence. Actually hearing from so many people was really good. It kind of told us what we needed to do.”

So this year, Robin Hood represents the return of a much-loved local theatre tradition. “If people think of these shows as a bit of an institution, then I suppose after last year it’ll have been much clearer to them what could be lost. It’s just fantastic to be back.”

Robin Hood, Dukes Lancaster at Williamson Park, to 17 August

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Robin Hood

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