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Tristan and Yseult

20 Feb

When I was an undergrad in art school, one of the requisite courses was a Sculpture 101 course, which quickly turned into a conceptual free-for-all. For the final, one of my classmates took his camera, rigged up a stencil that covered the external flash, and started taking people’s pictures. The stencil he had cut, which was covered by a white cloth, was the word LOVE, so that when the camera went off the word floated ephemerally under our eyelids in that blinking red-to-green disorientation of flashbulbs. It was simple, unexpected, and euphoric.


Kneehigh’s production of Tristan & Yseult, playing now at the Guthrie Theater has a similar feel – little gags and scenes pieced together with a bright flash, resulting in dizzying enchantment. Anyone who remembers their glorious Brief Encounter from four years ago know that Kneehigh excel at creating swooning, cinematic moments on stage that are as indelible as they are fleeting – even in a story about love, betrayal, jealousy, heartbreak and redemption, there is no time for dwelling or stewing, everything moves and is full of life.

Tristan & Yseult tells a version of the old French & Cornish myth – Tristan (Andrew Durand) is a French knight arrived in Cornwall from Brittany, just in time to save the Cornish king, Mark (Stuart Goodwin), from the Irish invader Morholt (Craig Johnson). King Mark sends Tristan to Ireland to bring back Morholt’s sister Yseult (Etta Murfitt) as his trophy, but Tristan and Yseult fall in love. Mark marries Yseult, and they, too, love each other, but not with the same fire that Tristan and Yseult hold. Tristan and Yseult are discovered and, as there always are in love and betrayal, there are consequences.

The consequences here, though, are more complex than simply love and hate and Kneehigh captures a range of requited and unrequited passions, duties and pains. The show opens at “The Club of the Unloved,” a downbeat nightclub populated by the “Lovespotters” – most of the cast dressed in dark windbreakers, knit balaklavas and dark rimmed glasses – a group of hilariously morose hipsters who serve as a sympathetic chorus for the story. There is the big triangle of Mark, Tristan and Yseult and their fiery, powerful feelings, but also a kindness and a desire to not hurt each other, even in the face of the inevitable. Mark’s attack dog Frocin, played with frothing energy by Giles King, walks a fine line between contemptible jealousy and pitiable despair. Perhaps one of the biggest moments of pathos is the moment of transformation of Brangian, Yseult’s maidservant. Played originally to huge laughs by Craig Johnson in drag, the after-effects of a command from Yseult and Johnson’s sensitivity are heartbreaking, and give space to the hurt that those in power can often, unthinkingly, cause to others without.

Johnson’s moment is one of the few moments of stillness in the show, otherwise there the space is filled with wild dancing, singing, and courtesy of the ropes attached to a mast in the center of the stage, acrobatic aerial moments. It could be a mess, but Emma Rice’s sure direction keeps everything crisp. There is just enough going on in terms of a set – the mast, a round stage that serves as the main playing area, giving an observer’s periphery on the actual proscenium, an elevated space for the band and a record player in a corner to give the imagination space to play. The costuming, from Tristan’s tightly cropped green suit to the yellow dress and pillbox hat on Whitehands (Carly Bawden), the nightclub singer and ostensible narrator, to the sweater vests of the band, give a swinging 60s vibe to the show, a useful point of romantic nostalgia for an audience, and for the show.

Kneehigh uses dialogue effectively, sometimes sparingly, in favor of montage-like action sequences that sweep you away and capture that breathlessness of love. One of the central questions about love at the end of Tristan & Yseult is about the possibility of return – will a lover come back? If Kneehigh keep making theater like this, please let the answer be yes. –c.a.s.

Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult from WeAreKneehigh on Vimeo.

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