The company in Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult. Photo by Richard Termine.
Tristan & Yseult
Written by: Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy
Adapted and Directed by: Emma Rice
Company: Kneehigh presented by Alley Theatre
Run Dates: April 24 – May 24, 2015
My first standing ovation in Houston. And a hearty one at that. For those who’ve just started reading my reviews here in the US, that may seem like no big deal. I’m a theatre critic after all, I see hundreds of shows a season, many of which I rave about. So getting to my feet at the close of a show can seem like an inevitable outgrowth of the gig.
Let me assure you it isn’t.
I rarely if ever give a standing ovation, preferring instead to illustrate my grand like and or love of a production with the far more civilized sitting ovation customary in London. The reason my bum remains in seat is this – I feel that far too often North Americans rise up at the end of a production, not because they are rapturous, but because it’s the thing to do. Plus if they were being really honest, legs are often cramped by closing curtain and folks fancy a bit of a stretch.
Anyway, back to my upright and vertical clapping. I suppose it’s a bit ironic that it was a British troupe’s production that got me to go anti London in my show of appreciation. But trust me, seeing Kneehigh’s wildly creative production of Tristan & Yseult would have made even Stephen Hawking jump up with joy.
Truthfully, I hadn’t planned on filing a review for this show. But Murphy’s Law, I saw it, I beyond adored it, and now here I am compelled to write about it. Or at least jot down some of my impressions of it in a stream of musing kind of fashion.
Wagner, who’s Wagner?
Yes the plot these days most associated with Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, is the same. King Mark sends his faithful Tristan out to claim Yseult as a prize bride after her brother is killed by the King in battle. Chemistry in the form of pheromones and mixed up love potions conspire to throw Tristan and Yseult into mad love/lust for one another. “This is a story of love”, we are ominously told. “And we are all in it.”
What we aren’t in is a traditional production. Forget the operas and the poetry and the really horrid James Franco movie, this adaptation by Emma Rice (who also directs) is a fantastical orgy of lust, heartbreak, comedy, music, dance, acrobatics and audience interaction that grabs you by the collar and doesn’t let go for 2 whirlwind acts.
Digging in the dirt
In leitmotif fashion, we are told that a communion dress, wedding dress and shroud are all white. Why not black, we’re asked? With white, “Dirt loves it, blood loves it, and sin loves it”. So terribly hard to keep clean.
Just one beautiful example of Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy’s sumptuous writing for this show. Yes this production is a feast for the eyes, but never once does it forget that the words behind the extravaganza matter just as much.
“I get it but I shouldn’t get it”
This was a comment I heard a young man gleefully say to his mother at intermission. I had to laugh as I know exactly what he meant. Yes we get the plot, but storyline is distinctly secondary with all the visual and aural fireworks that are on offer for us.
There’s the band of hoodie-wearing, knit-vested and bespeckled musicians looking like a hipster version of Devo playing everything from Nazareth’s Love Hurts to Daft Punk’s Get Lucky to some decidedly sweeping orchestral music.
There’s the all in white Jackie O resembling narrator whose derision for love due to her lack of it slithers through the show like a bitter snake.
There’s the black windbreaker nerdy clan who hang out in the Club of the Unloved and serve the show as ensemble characters called Lovespotters, Brutes and Animators. Providing everything from acrobatic tech assistance to fourth wall breaking gags to musical interludes, these dear unloved souls provide some of the evening’s most cleverly amusing bits.
There’s Yseult’s maid Brannigan, here a man in dress, whose comedic timing makes us laugh until we hurt but then turns that hurt into genuine pain for all of us to feel.
There’s an uber cool industrial set with steel catwalk, circular wooden riser and pulleys and levers that may be low tech but nonetheless provide the most astonishing physical and visual effects.
There of course are the pair of lovers, whose love potion scene including a jaw dropping, gravity defying, erotic high-flying dance, is at once one of the sexiest and funniest scenes I can imagine.
I could go on and on as there are literally dozens of superlative characters and bits and performances and oh so wonderfully smart pieces of direction and set /sound/lighting design. But I really do think this is a show best experienced as fresh as possible in order to revel in the wonder.
But if you HAD to describe it as a whole….
Well you asked, so here’s my best attempt.
It’s a mashup of Cirque du Soleil, Shakespeare, Blue Man Group, Monty Python, Robert La Page, rave culture, Revenge of the Nerds and Alt Rock all tied into an emotional bow that will have you swooning one minute and nursing a broken heart the next. It’s risky and funny and energizing and emotional and exhausting in all the right ways.
There, did that clear it up?
Yes or no, my advice would be to not worry about what it’s like and to just go and see what it is.