Presented by ArtsEmerson
Directed and adapted by Emma Rice
Written by Carl Grose & Anna Maria Murphy
Performed by Kneehigh Theatre Company
Composed by Stu Barker
Sweet Band: Lizzy Westcott, Justin Radford, Pat Moran, James Gow
Review by Kitty Drexel
(Boston, MA) In 2006 Twentieth Century Fox released a film bastardization of the Tristan and Isolde myth, Tristan & Isolde. It was headlined by James freakin’ Franco, directed by Kevin Reynolds, and produced by Ridley Scott. It was terrible but sweet, innocent youths flocked to the theater because, then “It” boy, James Franco (Tristan) participated in naked sexy times with Sophia Myles (Isolde) and they wanted to see it. These poor kids assumed that T&I were star crossed lovers with good intentions and bad luck. The truth lives thousands of miles away from the inane crud Reynolds and Franco brought to screen.
Kneehigh Theatre Company’s Tristant & Yseult presents a more true interpretation of the medieval French tale. Tristan (Dominic Marsh with a dodgy French accent), Yseult (Hannah Vassallo) and King Mark (Stuart Goodwin) are caught in a love triangle. Tristan loves and serves the English King Mark like a father. In return, Mark loves Tristan like a son. After defeating the Irish royal Morholt (Niall Ashdown), Tristan sails to Ireland to capture Morholt’s sister, the fair Yseult, and bring her back to England at Mark’s behest. Upon seeing her for the first time, both men fall deeply in love with Yseult. Yseult gives her sensible heart to Mark but her hormonal lady bits to Tristan. The actions are narrated by the elegant White Hands (Kirsty Woodward) and the patrons of the Club of the Unloved, the omniscient ensemble dressed in snoods, thick glasses, and windbreakers (snood dudes). There’s betrayal and laughs aplenty.
The beautiful poster advertising this production is misleading. The image on the poster features Tristan and Yseult on handheld wires amidst romantic entanglement and gives the impression that this production is acrobatic/tumbling based. Tristan & Yseult is less Cirque du Soleil acrobatics and more musical postmodern metatheatre meets Shakespearean extravaganza with West Side Story-like fight choreography. The performance was conducted on a set that closely resembled a circus’ Big Top with a lively band… But, patrons expecting one thing were confused when they were presented with another. This confused patron was perfectly happy with the romantic, Irish ballad-y performance she saw but can understand why others were not. There was a lot of the unexpected to take in that night.
Unlike a Cirque du Soleil production, Kneehigh Theatre created their own world for Tristan & Yseult that they remained posed halfway in and halfway out of for the duration. The Cutler Majestic was transformed into a nightclub and we watched the action onstage with the voyeurism of a mystic into her crystal ball. Their acting was superb but their ability to maintain this private world as they enticed the audience into it, even while engaging us, was better. The events onstage unfolded like a dance. By adding elements of audience participation, we were a willing partner for the actors.
Kneehigh took particular care at articulating the ins and outs of even the smallest of characters: The snood dudes appeared to be polar opposites of the leading characters but were actually literal dancing fools that mocked the equally as foolish behavior of the lovers. Ashdown, who did double duty in two roles, played Brangian the maid hilariously not because he was a man in a dress but because Brangian was a funny character. Damon Daunno’s Frocin was a wild, showstopping element even as he was peaceably devoted to his king. The leads were, of course, fantastic as well.
What I loved most about this production, above and beyond the fantastical elements of dance, costume and wire work, was the honesty of its presentation. The T&I myth isn’t presented as an unfortunate series of events by kids who didn’t know any better (see the 2006 movie). Rather, the audience is told explicitly that Tristan and Yseult know exactly what kind of crap they are stirring by sleeping together. Tristan and Yseult are irresponsible adults who blindly ignore the tragic consequences of really great albeit adulterous sex. This production strikes directly at the moral focus that the original myth warns of: orgasms aren’t more important than keeping sacred the ties that bind. Love is a terrible excuse to hurt the ones you love. The 2006 movie misses this entirely. Kneehigh hits it directly on the head.