Sick of all those tales of gorgeous young couples, deeply in love with a tragic end for them both? We're not surprised. Those kind of bittersweet, star-crossed romances have been around for centuries. Throw in a jealous older man and you've got yourself a sultry triangle that's been covered in countless ways.
The story of Tristan & Yseult is the perfect prototype, a template for the shenanigans of King Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere, and a likely influence on Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. In this instance the older guy in a position of power is Mark, King of Cornwall, England. He plans to marry the beautiful Yseult, sister of a defeated foe, and sends the dashing knight Tristan to fetch her. Tristan and Yseult fall in love, with very unfortunate consequences.
It's enough to break the hearts of the romantics in the audience. But what if you're not loved, or young, or sexy? Where do the losers fit into these myths?
For Kneehigh Theatre, they provide a fresh angle that allows plebes to relate to the hoary story. The Cornish company adds a gaggle of onlookers to their cast, nerds who appreciate and document romance without a hope of ever being loved themselves. Dubbed "lovespotters," these unattractive fans keep cropping up to comment on developments.
They have plenty to be enthusiastic about in this inventive, multi-layered, music-strewn production. Kneehigh is determined to get away from staid theatrics, bringing the fun back into their artform. This resolve has paid off with sold-out shows in major theatres throughout Britain and equally successful Australian gigs. England's prestigious National Theatre loved 'em, and the Royal Shakespeare Company was so impressed that it commissioned them to join its year-long bardfest with a reworking of Cymbeline.
Before Kneehigh delves into Shakespeare's oeuvre, there's Spoleto to conquer. To build up the stamina required to perform Tristan & Yseult again, they've been rehearsing on the cliff tops of the Cornish coast in the South of England, working with the carousel-like mast that is an integral set piece in the show. "It revolves with our actors suspended by ropes as if they can fly around it," says associate director Mike Shepherd. "Although, due to health and safety regulations, the carousel has to be fixed so it won't move at all at the Dock Street Theatre. Ironically, that makes it less safe — we just bang against the mast when we stop spinning."
Other grumbles include visa hold-ups ("they seem to be based on motoring offenses from 12 years ago") — at the time of writing, the brave Tristan was still stuck at the U.S. Embassy, forging through a heap of red tape; then there are the headaches of adapting the show to the confines of the modest Dock Street Theatre. "But we'll be there," says Shepherd, "and we'll give audiences the same five-star, top-reviewed production that's worked so well in the past."
Like class clowns so high-spirited that even the school teachers can't help liking them, the Kneehigh gang trade on their anti-theatrical irreverence while gaining kudos from the critics. "We're paranoid of prancing around in doublet and hose," says Shepherd. "This is more like a version that Tarantino might do than a medieval version. We're definitely a company that's attracted a younger audience." While early versions of their show drew in a core of National Theatre subscribers familiar with Wagner's opera Tristan and Ysolde, a funkier audience turned up, too. "It's because our style is bold. We use music. We don't just rely on the text to tell the story."
Their ancient source material calls for a major update. The love story became popular back when tin was more valuable than gold, placing the ore-rich Cornwall right in the middle of Dark Age trade routes. When merchants transported the tin, they took the tale with them too — hence the yarn's many permutations. These days, jaded audiences make such fanciful fare harder to push. So the lovespotters have become an integral part of Tristan & Yseult, to help add a contemporary edge and point out how silly all this romantic stuff really is.
"We're not that interested in seeing a young couple falling in love," says adapter and director Emma Rice, feeling that Hollywood has already strip-mined "the whole Romeo and Juliet thing. But we are interested in the anguish of the love triangle between Tristan, Yseult, and King Mark."
"They all loved each other and no one could leave," adds Shepherd, who also plays the King. "That's something they didn't explore in the recent, simplified movie version, Tristan + Ysolde. In the film, the passion is between only the two leads. The original is more complicated and emotionally deep, although we stay nonjudgmental." This is apparent in the way that Kneehigh's protagonists are portrayed as being controlled by outside forces — fate, blind love, awkward circumstances — a great get-out clause for their ill-advised hanky-panky.
"When they take a love potion it's as if they get drunk," Shepherd smiles, giving an example of the overturned conventions that pepper the play. The lovers' intoxication is juxtaposed with other takes on love, as a giddy fling, a contest, or a mess of promises, lies, hope, and despair — all played out on a nifty, multifunctional set created by designer Bill Mitchell, with help from the rest of the company.
"The process of putting the show together is a bit like cooking," says Shepherd. "We're working with the raw materials and we all muck in together. The kind of actor that sits and reads the newspaper and waits to come on and do his line has no place with Kneehigh. There are enough companies doing that already. It's part of our job to keep a space energized and charged, contributing to everything."
Bill Mitchell doesn't design his sets and then present them to the cast as a done deal. Instead he builds a kind of "adventure playground" for the actors to explore, then incorporates their ideas and tidies up the details. The end result has room for serious acting, bawdy comedy, dancing, circus-style tricks, and various forms of live music, from folk to calypso to rock 'n' roll.
Shepherd promises that audiences will get their money's worth." We've a reputation for providing a good night out with our accessible style. You really get the full range of entertainment; violent fights, tender love scenes, funny dances. The production's intensely theatrical, with lots of comedy and tragedy — they really do serve each other."
Kneehigh has also taken its younger audience members' notoriously short attention spans into account. "It's split into two halves, each under an hour, so people won't be bored senseless, sitting through Act Three Scene Four waiting for it to end."
On the strength of past rave reviews from the sternest of critics and Tristan's tapping into the British traditions of pantomime, the circus, and audience engagement, it looks like Dock Street audiences will wish the show could last a little longer.
TRISTAN & YSEULT • Spoleto Festival USA • $35-$55 • May 25-27, 29, 31, June 1, 2, 6-10 at 8 p.m.; May 28, June 3, 4, 11 at 3:30 p.m.; May 28, June 3 at 8:30 p.m. • 2 hours 10 min. • Dock Street Theatre, 135 Church St. • 579-3100