Standing in the orchestra pit of Toronto's Royal Alexandra Theatre, Gisli Orn Gardarsson – an Icelandic gymnast turned theatre director – is excitedly pointing out the main obstacles hidden in the jungle gym that he and designer Borkur Jonsson have built for the cast of The Heart of Robin Hood.
There are ropes that the hero and his merry band of men will have to swing on and hang upside down from as they steal from the rich and give to the poor. Then there's a 12-metre-high climbing wall covered in Astroturf and full of trap doors and secret compartments; it also doubles as a slide that descends at a 55-degree angle, down which Maid Marian will tumble into Sherwood Forest.
"You're going to see a lot of scared actors on stage," the 40-year-old director says with a mischievous grin.
Last month, The Heart of Robin Hood – a new adaptation of the legend written by British playwright David Farr – finished a run at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre that made the Winnipeg critics giddy. But Gardarsson is still making big changes to his highly physical production leading up to its official opening in Toronto on Wednesday – and just cut a big aerial number that dazzled in the 'Peg because he felt it didn't further the plot.
"What Gisli really wants is that we don't fall into 'Okay, now it's the circus bit, now it's the parkour bit,'" says Katelyn McCulloch, the show's Nova Scotia-born aerialist captain. "It's really about how do we integrate these things in a way that is seamless and part of Sherwood Forest and a part of Robin Hood."
The stakes for seamlessness are high because, after Toronto, the next stop for Robin Hood is Broadway. Producer David Mirvish and the National Artists Management Co. are taking the show to the Marquis Theatre in New York after it closes March 1 in Toronto.
That will make Gardarsson, co-founder of Reykjavik's Vesturport Theatre Company, the first Icelander to direct on the Great White Way – a destination he never thought was in the realm of possibility when he switched gears from gymnastics to theatre at the age of 24.
At the time, he felt that decision meant he'd be stuck in Iceland for the rest of his life – "Icelandic theatre doesn't tour," he says – though his work with Vesturport over the past 12 years has changed that situation significantly.
Gardarsson's goal as a young man was to get to the Olympics; though he was too tall (6 foot 3) and fell short of the Summer Games, he was on the national team for Iceland and competed in European championships. When his gymnastics career came to its inevitable end, he says, "I thought: 'What can I do with this stuff? Do I just sit down in an office and get fat?'"
Gardarsson studied at Iceland Academy for the Arts and then joined the Reykjavik City Theatre, but he was disappointed with the amount of attention given to the physical side of performing. "You're always wondering what to do with your hands," he says.
While still in theatre school, Gardarsson founded Vesturport with a group of friends after finding a shed for rent in a Reykjavik alley. In 2002, he directed his first production for the company – a Romeo and Juliet that he hoped would be an outlet for his urge to get physical on stage. He cast himself as Romeo and then brought together a group of actors with no gymnastic backgrounds; he showed them videos of the work of German choreographer Pina Bausch, British physical theatre company DV8 and Canadian circus company Cirque du Soleil – and made them perform on aerial silks made out of curtains he bought at a dollar store.
This Romeo and Juliet was only supposed to run for 15 performances at the City Theatre. But British directors David Lan and Rufus Norris from the Young Vic came to see it, it was imported to London and it was such a critical hit that it transferred to the West End.
An unexpected international career was born. Gardarsson has since directed a number of successful productions, include several collaborations with Australian musicians Nick Cave and Warren Ellis – notably an acrobatic adaptation of Kafka's Metamorphosis that David Mirvish brought to Toronto last winter.
Music plays a role in The Heart of Robin Hood as well. It premiered in an earlier version at the Royal Shakespeare Company at the end of 2011, but for the Winnipeg/Toronto/New York version, alt-Americana band Parsonsfield has joined to perform songs from the stage. The five bearded bluegrass musicians fit in organically with the Merry Men.
It's the Icelandic director's parkour- and circus-inspired staging, however, that's the real selling point for this version of a much-told story. Luckily, The Heart of Robin Hood is going to Broadway at a time when New York's theatre district seems particularly open to physical theatre.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, with its frenetic, athletic staging by War Horse's Marianne Elliott and movement directors Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, is the only non-musical play without a Hollywood star to become a hit this season – having just extended its run to September, 2015.
Meanwhile, Hoggett, from the British physical theatre company Frantic Assembly, has had his hand in a string of recent Broadway hits from Once to Peter and the Starcatcher. And a revival of Pippin, created with Montreal circus troupe Les 7 doigts de la main, just completed a Tony-winning run and is headed out on North American tour.
The hard part is getting non-gymnast actors comfortable with using those hands to, among other things, suspend themselves in the air while acting. "Ropes hurt – they burn and they bruise and it's a physically gruelling process," McCulloch says. "It really is so many parts of your brain and body working – it's an amazing juggling act."
Actor Troy Feldman, a veteran of such Mirvish productions as War Horse and The Lord of the Rings musical, has been asked to do a lot of intense physical things by directors before. But he says watching Gardarsson scoot up and down a rope on the first day of rehearsals for Robin Hood inspired him to go further than he has before. "It pushes the boundaries – if the director can do it, I have to be able to do it," says Feldman, who is playing a wolf-like villain named Fenric.
Gardarsson says his approach to staging is not about the spectacular feats – it's about telling a story with visual images that help heighten the emotions in a moment. So his Romeo and Juliet fell in love as they flew through the air on trapezes; and his Gregor Samsa literally climbed the walls in Metamorphosis after being transformed into a cockroach.
Or, in the case of Maid Marian, she falls down the giant green slide that dominates the Robin Hood stage in order to give the audience a sense of what she's feeling. "That feeling when you're going into a new environment or a new world, and you feel like you're thrown into it," Gardarsson says. Perhaps something like the feeling of aiming for the Olympics, missing the rings and accidentally landing on your feet on Broadway.