by SOPHIE KERMAN
The story of Tristan and Yseult (or Isolde) has been told and re-told for centuries, from the original 12th-century French romance to Wagner’s 19th-century opera to Ridley Scott’s fairly atrocious 2006 adaptation. Such a long history provides the freedom to take a few liberties, to push and pull the tale into new forms that speak to modern audiences without losing their historical roots.
As you walk into the Guthrie for this adaptation by the British company Kneehigh, you certainly won’t picture yourself in ancient Cornwall. If you get to the theater early (and hang around during intermission), you can have the pleasure of soaking up the ambiance of the Club of the Unloved. Here, the Lovespotters – dressed in raincoats and balaclavas – test out their clumsy dance moves and eagerly take notes on others’ romances; meanwhile, a quartet of talented musicians led by vocalist Carly Bawden serenade us with classic songs about the pain of love. The tragic love triangle between Tristan, Yseult, and King Mark is just another act in a cabaret of romances which, as ill-fated as they may be, nonetheless inspire the lovelorn with a sad sort of jealousy for a degree of passion they have never been able to find.
And at least in Kneehigh’s world, this kind of passion is both dangerous and seductive. For them, epic romance exists in a timeless circus of violence, passion, drunken debauchery, and quieter moments of tenderness, all poised on the precarious edge of disaster. As the first act gains momentum, Tristan and Yseult’s attraction to each other is presented as both carnal, comical, and desperately out of control. Every time we laugh – and we laugh a lot in this production – it is with the knowledge that this raucous energy is not sustainable. Even as the hapless Frocin (Giles King) has the audience in stitches, dangling from the sky with a Polaroid camera in the hopes of catching the adulterers in the act, we can’t help but wish he would stop and let the couple enjoy their last precious moments of intimacy.
It is this sense of both fatalism and fatality, growing throughout the play from a sliver of doubt into a dagger of suspicion, that drives the tragedy of the evening. Poor Yseult (Etta Murfitt) finds different forms of love with Mark and Tristan; the stoic Mark (Stuart Goodwin) visibly melts under Yseult’s gaze while Tristan (Andrew Durand) more gallantly sweeps her off her feet. If this were a different play, an emotional compromise could be reached.
We even share a serious moment with Yseult’s maid, Brangian: although the part is played primarily for laughs by Craig Johnson (in drag), a comedic switcheroo on Yseult’s wedding night leads to a surprising realization about power and vulnerability, made even more poignant by the fact that it is delivered by a man.
While each of these characterizations stands well on its own, it is the music and design that knit the production together. Bill Mitchell‘s set combines the theatrical potential of a circus with the bare-bones functionality of a ship, while Malcolm Rippeth lights the actors in creative ways that capture exactly the right mood. The use of sound – both recorded and live – also creates unity amidst the varied “acts” in this cabaret; clips from the beginning and end of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde are put to particularly powerful effect.
Without a doubt, this production is like no other version of Tristan & Yseult that you will ever see, and it is funnier and more moving than you might expect. Both a celebration and a requiem for passionate love, this is a Valentine’s Day show told with physicality, energy, and wit that never loses track of the romance at its core. We’ve been telling this story for hundreds of years, and as wacky as it is, the Kneehigh production reminds us why.
Kneehigh’s Tristan & Yseult, Adapted and directed by Emma Rice. February 13 – March 23, 2014 on the McGuire Proscenium Stage at the Guthrie Theater, 818 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN 55415. Tickets $34-64 at http://www.guthrietheater.org/, 612.377.2224 or 1.877.44.STAGE.