Admittedly, the RSC's new winter show, The Heart of Robin Hood, had signalled from the start that we weren't in for wholesome derring-do amid dappled sunshine. Within the first few minutes our ungallant hero had shot dead a monk with an arrow through the eye. Shortly after, soldiers threatened two blubbing children under the revolving toes of their hanged father. A realistic decapitation drew a few gasps but was swiftly topped by a brutal de-tonguing, in which the ravaged appendage was gaily waved about as the victim's mouth frothed with blood. But it was when King John started to make bobbing hand gestures, pantomiming his lascivious nature, that I saw several adults around me pursing their lips.
The kids, of course, were oblivious – and ecstatic. And so they should have been. Gísli Örn Garðarsson's deliciously visceral production rips through the cliches of our over-worn national tale to touch its anarchic, acrobatic and deeply moving heart. It feels far more authentic than the versions of Flynn, Costner and co, and full of the morbid weirdness that characterises old British myths.
But some grumblings surfaced among the parents as we filed out into the night. Wasn't it, well, a bit much? There is a "suitable for age seven +" disclaimer on the RSC website, but this is being touted as a family show and there were many under-sevens in the audience. "It was the same with Toy Story 3," said one mother. "That bit in the oven. It was far too scary for me, let alone her."
This response amazes me. Don't grownups remember what it's like to be a child? The success of the Horrible Histories franchise reminds us that kids love bloody, messy nastiness, but the Histories are pure Blyton compared with the best of children's literature. From the moment we're introduced to the kinky cruelties of the Brothers Grimm, things get dark. Then come Lewis Carroll, Roald Dahl, Alan Garner … these are the twisted keepers of our childhood imaginings. Even JK Rowling's Death Eaters tap into the tradition.