Theater archives

A British Ensemble Imports a Rollicking Tristan & Yseult


Theater’s forbidden love affairs often leave wreckage in their wake: bodies on the streets of Verona, plague in Thebes. But we rarely hear much from the onlookers to these combustible scenes. They’re lucky to be spared the pain, and unlucky to miss out on the big feelings.

In U.K. ensemble Kneehigh’s rollicking Tristan & Yseult — now playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse — we start with the bystanders to crazy stupid love. Called the Lovespotters, they’re a chorus of dweeby homebodies with horn-rims and sensible raingear who look on with trepidation from the safety of the Club of the
Unloved, a kind of boozeteria for losers, with a good house band. (As the show starts, they’re playing twee renditions of classic torch songs: “Only the Lonely,” “Dream Lover.”) Throughout, the
Lovespotters hover in the margins, surrogates for all of us humdrum spectators unlikely to achieve a flaming liebestod anytime soon.

The Tristan and Isolde legend should make anyone cautious about falling head over heels. Most famously staged by Richard Wagner — we hear the famed final aria from his Tristan und Isolde (1865) on a vintage record player — the story dates back to misty prehistory, and most renditions don’t end well.

Kneehigh’s version — directed by Emma Rice, who also adapted the script by Carl Grose and Anna Maria Murphy — is performed storytelling-style, complete with glam narrator and rhyming couplets. A round platform stage festooned with rigging evokes the ships that propel the narrative. Actors emerge from the chorus to play characters in the story, then return, perhaps gratefully, to anonymity once their parts are done.

Here Tristan (Dominic Marsh) is a
Gallic swaggerer with a tormented mien. Arriving at the court of the Cornish king, Mark (Mike Shepherd), he repels an Irish invasion mostly single-handedly — and so he’s a natural choice for the follow-up mission, collecting Yseult (Hannah Vassallo), the Irish king’s sister, to be K-Mark’s war bride. But he and Yseult hit it off and start sneaking around. She knows there are many good reasons to marry His
Mark-ness: peace, safety, security. But her reasonable inclinations war unsuccessfully with her loins. The king winds up being pretty nice about it — he takes her back and doesn’t execute Tristan — but all roads still point to the big love-death.

Kneehigh’s main premise, that our fascination with doomed lovers frequently overlooks the mess that orbits them, is humane and revelatory. We should remember the smaller lives along with the big. And to enlarge the contrast between meek observers and main plot, everything that happens in legendary Cornwall is whiz-bang huge, and performed with great exuberance.

You sometimes wish Kneehigh had trimmed a few of the good ideas, though. For every eloquent image, and there are many, there’s another that gilds the lily. Puppets! Acrobatics! Dance numbers! It’s as if the ensemble is performing the “special skills” section of its résumé.

Like an insecure date, Kneehigh keeps asking us to prove we’re having a good time: to sing along, answer survey questions, blow up wedding balloons. They
may be urging us to abandon our own
minor-key lives for a grand theatrical affair, but there’s a children’s-theater vibe about the whole production. The company could have absorbed another important lesson about love — and theater — from the star-crossed Tristan and Yseult: the more hard-to-get, the more alluring.